Inerrancy of the Bible: Defined and Defended. Part 1

I. Clarification of Terms

E.J. Young provides a precise definition for each of the terms “inerrancy” and “infallibility” of the Bible:

Infallible: “By the term infallible as applied to the Bible, we mean simply that the Scripture possesses an indefectible authority. As our Lord himself said “it cannot be broken” (John 10:35). It can never fail in its judgments and statements. All that it teaches is of unimpeachable, absolute authority, and cannot be contravened, contradicted, or gainsaid. Scripture is unfailing, incapable of proving false, erroneous, or mistaken.”
Inerrant: “By this word [Inerrant] we mean that the Scriptures possess the quality of freedom from error. They are exempt from the liability to mistake, incapable of error. In all their teachings they are in perfect accord with the truth.” [E.J. Young, Thy Word Is Truth (Eerdmans, 1957), p. 113]

For our purpose, we shall use Paul Feinberg’s celebrated definition of ‘inerrancy’:  “Inerrancy means that when all facts are known, the Scriptures in their original autographs and properly interpreted will be shown to be wholly true in everything that they affirm, whether that has to do with doctrine or morality or with the social, physical, or life sciences.” Paul Feinberg, “The Meaning of Inerrancy” in Inerrancy, ed. Norman Geisler (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1979), 294.

However,  some Western theologians who no longer believe that the Bible is inerrant  prefer to describe the Bible as “infallible”. In the process, they use the word “infallibility” as a short-hand for “limited inerrancy”, that is, the view that the Bible contains historical and scientific errors while remaining infallible in matters of faith and salvation. Unfortunately, this redefinition is a departure from classical theological discourse when the word ‘inerrancy’ meant the Bible does not err, and “infallibility” meant the Bible cannot err.

In contrast, Article XI of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI) emphasizes: “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.” The two terms ‘infallible’ and ‘inerrant’ are, in context, inextricable. In short, inerrancy and infallibility affirm that the whole of Scripture is true and not only parts of it. Finally, the focus of inerrancy is not limited to issues of factual accuracy in Scripture. It is primarily concerned about the authority of Scripture. Thus, CSBI begins in Article 1, “We affirm that the Holy Scriptures are to be received as the authoritative Word of God.”

Inerrancy Chart

For PDF Download: pdfInerrancy Chart

A. The Fundamental Argument of Inerrancy:
(1) Whatever the Bible affirms, God affirms.
(2) Whatever God affirms is true.
(3) Therefore, whatever the Bible affirms is true.

This is a basic syllogism of Aristotelian logic. All P are Q; all Q are S; therefore all P are S.
However, this argument is valid only if its premises are true. I have already argued for the truth of the first premise in an earlier article [The Logic of Christ and the Bible (Part 2) – From Reliable Historical Document to Trustworthy Word of God]; the second premise is accepted as true because God is both essentially good (he cannot affirm a falsehood) and omniscient (he cannot be mistaken).

B. The Meaning of Inerrancy
1. The meaning of Inerrancy comprises an affirmation of Scriptural truthfulness and a denial that Scripture could be false:
Affirmation (version 1): “Inerrancy means that when all facts are known, the Scripture in their original autographs and properly interpreted will be shown to be wholly true in everything that they affirm, whether that has to do with doctrine or morality or with the social, physical, or life sciences.” Feinberg, ‘The Meaning of Inerrancy’, in Inerrancy, ed. Norman L. Geisler (Zondervan, 1979), p. 294.
Affirmation (version 2): “The Bible in its original autographs, properly interpreted will be found to be truthful and faithful in all that it affirms concerning all areas of life, faith and practice.” David Dockery [“Varieties of Inerrancy” SBC Today (March 1985), p. 16.]

Denial: “The inerrancy of Scripture means that Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm
anything that is contrary to fact.” Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), p. 90.

2. Proper interpretation is crucial in the affirmation of inerrancy. Disputes of interpretation are to be settled through collective deliberation by the Church using the tools of grammatical-historical exegesis. “We affirm that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices, and that Scripture is to interpret Scripture.” Re: Article XVIII of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy

CBSI does not deny the fact that there remains textual issues, historical uncertainties and problems in interpretation of the Bible. However, it is confident that these problems could be resolved in time with better data (e.g. fuller data made available in future archaeological discoveries). The Statement elaborates in Article XIII states: “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 [i.e. describing a report of falsehood], 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 [e.g. by New Testament authors of Old Testament texts].”

Hence, CSBI emphasizes that interpretation should be cognizant of “literary forms and devices” (Article XVIII). That is to say, inerrancy allows for variety in style, variety in details, non-verbatim reporting of events, grammatical diversity that is characteristic of lingua franca like koine Greek).

3. CSBI is further clarified by the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics (CSBH). Article XIII. We affirm that awareness of the literary categories, formal and stylistic, of the various parts of Scripture is essential for proper exegesis, and hence we value genre criticism as one of the many disciplines of biblical study. We deny that generic categories which negate historicity may rightly be imposed on biblical narratives which present themselves as factual. Article XIV. We affirm that the biblical record of events, discourses and sayings, though presented in a variety of appropriate literary forms, corresponds to historical fact. We deny that any event, discourse or saying reported in Scripture was invented by the biblical writers or by the traditions they incorporated. Article XV. We affirm the necessity of interpreting the Bible according to its literal, or normal, sense. The literal sense is the grammatical-historical sense, that is, the meaning which the writer expressed. Interpretation according to the literal sense will take account of all figures of speech and literary forms found in the text. We deny the legitimacy of any approach to Scripture that attributes to it meaning which the literal sense does not support. Article XVI. We affirm that legitimate critical techniques should be used in determining the canonical text and its meaning. We deny the legitimacy of allowing any method of biblical criticism to question the truth or integrity of the writer’s expressed meaning, or of any other scriptural teaching.

Admittedly, the credibility of CSBI and CSBH could be undermined if some scholars ignore the precise qualifications set by CSBI and CSBH and simplistically apply a literalistic interpretation of the Bible. In response, Kevin Vanhoozer stresses that the “doctrine of inerrancy must be well-versed because the textual truth of Scripture is comprised of language and literature.” Well-versed inerrancy recognizes that not everything that is said in the author’s discourse is an affirmation and highlights the speech-act nature of biblical affirmation presented in diverse literary forms or genre (Five Views of Biblical Inerrancy (FVBI), p. 211). Well-versed inerrancy acknowledges that biblical truth involves form as well as content and takes account of the importance of rhetoric as well as logic for “rightly handling [orthotomeo] the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15 ESV). To be well-versed is to have the literary skills for a literate understanding of the literal sense, that is, to handle rightly the word of truth (p. 205).

Vanhoozer proposes a well-versed definition of inerrancy: “the authors speak the truth in all things they affirm (when they are making affirmations), and will eventually be seen to have spoken truly (when right readers read rightly).” (p. 220). In the making of affirmations, God’s Word does so inerrantly (p. 223).

4. Inerrancy is aware of ‘problem passages’ like the baptism accounts and the resurrection narratives where there are apparent discrepancies. However, we should not be surprised to come across discrepancies when reading different eyewitness reports as eyewitnesses often emphasize or focus on different details of the events. It is also evident that the gospel writers intentionally rearrange the order of events in Jesus’ ministry and sometimes paraphrase Jesus’ speeches to suit their editorial purposes. However, it is unnecessary to conclude that their writings are contradictory as the discrepancies arising from fragmentary access to historical evidence allow for different harmonization that are equally plausible. It would be modern snobbery to judge the writers guilty of literary license and erroneous reporting as they were following different literary conventions.

John Feinberg offers a well-balanced approach in dealing with the relationship between inerrancy and diverse Scriptural interpretations:
We must avoid both a conservative and liberal danger. The conservative danger is to identify the inerrancy of Scripture with the inerrancy of our interpretation, and then say that someone who disagrees with our interpretation, say because they take non literally what we think is a historical event, is denying the inerrancy of Scripture (p. 69). Conservatives often make this mistake with Genesis 1. We should argue for our interpretation, while realizing that our evangelical interlocutors equally believe the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God.

The liberal danger is to empty the Christian faith of all meaning. The Christian faith is a historical faith, and it rests squarely upon what God has done in time and space. Once we begin interpreting the characters and events in Scripture in non-historical ways, how will we know when to stop? For example, some may say the talking snake in Genesis 3 is merely a poetic way to refer to the presence of Satan or to the temptation itself. But if there was no snake, was there an actual tree? Was there an Adam and Eve? You see how one might eventually conclude there was no historical Fall (see John Feinberg, No One Like Him (Crossway, 2006), p. 613).

C. Criticisms of Inerrancy
Michael Bird, a friendly critic who describes his view as “hardly a completely different species” from inerrancy has expressed concerns that the focus of CSBI on inerrancy is textually problematic and theologically indefensible. First, he criticizes B. B. Warfield to be naïve in holding that “if we possessed the original texts, then all real discrepancies would vanish and we’d be left with only apparent discrepancies.” (FVBI, p. 151) Worse still, it may really be an evasion of the problem of textual variations in existing biblical texts. The solution in his view “is not to think that God reinspires every copy of Scripture (such as every papyrus, scroll, or codex), nor to say that one particular modern version is inspired (such as the King James Bible), but to see inspiration as extending to the human literary processes which preserved the meaning and power of God’s Word to achieve the ends for which it was given.” (pp. 152-153)

Bird’s criticism is a timely reminder that any doctrine of Scripture must engage with the “phenomena of Scripture”. However, Warfield did not rely on his belief in inerrant autograph as an excuse to retreat to a zone of unverifiable and unfalsifiable immunity. Instead, Warfield who himself wrote a book on textual criticism encouraged students to undertake the task of recovering the ‘original’ text of the Bible. “[W]e affirm that we have the autographic text; and not only we but all men may see it if they will; and that God has not permitted the Bible to become so hopelessly corrupt that its restoration to its original text is impossible. As a matter of fact, the great body of the Bible is, in its autographical text, in the worst copies of the original texts in circulation; practically the whole of it is in its autographic text in the best texts in circulation; and he who will may today read the autographic text in large stretches of Scripture without legitimate doubt.” [Warfield, Selected Shorter Writings 2:583-84]

Warfield is confident that textual criticism will enable scholars to recover “the original text” and not “the original codex” because of God’s providence in preserving the Bible. He concludes, “defenders of the trustworthiness of the Scriptures have constantly asserted, together, that God gave the Bible as the errorless record of his will to men, and that he has, in his superabounding grace, preserved them to this hour—yea, and will preserve it for them to the end of time.” (Ibid., 2:589)

Second, Bird sees inerrancy as theologically misplaced and leading to a reduction of Christian faith to abstract truth claims. He writes, Revelation is not mere propositions about God waiting to be decoded (p. 164). It is “God’s work in imparting the cognition of his person, plan, purposes, and the entire reality which he represents.” Revelation is not only for knowing facts about God, but enjoying fellowship with him. Inspiration happens principally at the conceptual level but since there is an overlap between words and concepts, there is a degree of verbal inspiration. However, this does not warrant construing verbal plenary inspiration. If Scripture is God’s own Word, then its veracity is rooted not in personal experience, church councils, or apologetics, but in God’s own fidelity (p. 165).

Bird’s concern is well taken. However, it would be unfair to expect CSBI to answer the whole plethora of questions on Scripture that it did not intend to address. CSBI was drafted for a specific occasion when the truthfulness and authority of the Bible was publicly disputed. Regardless, CSBI is mindful of the larger concerns of Christian faith and practice. It ends with 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 a confession should lead to increasing conformity to the image of Christ [emphasis added]. 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.”

Related Post: Inerrancy of the Bible: Defined and Defended. Part 2