Inerrancy - pros and cons
Discussion of the meaning of inerrancy and popular prejudices and misconceptions (further to debate between P Gardner and A McGrath)
Jim Packer has written this article in response to the debate begun in EN between Paul Gardner and Alister McGrath.
Inerrancy, like fundamentalism, is a word I would rather not use when confessing my faith. Why? Because, like fundamentalism, it carries a huge load of prejudice and misconception.
Words that cannot safely be used without first explaining what you do not mean by them are best avoided, however noble their true sense may be. Fundamentalism, for instance, means standing for the fundamentals of the faith, and inerrancy means the total truthfulness of the Bible, and ideally all Christians would be for both the one and the other. But because of what has happened to both words in the 20th-century Christian world, I, like others, try to get on without them, expressing my commitment in different terms. When accused of being a fundamentalist and an inerrantist, I need to define the words before pleading guilty, and that takes time I would rather spend in other ways.
The prejudicial image of fundamentalism is well known: anti-intellectualism, rigid and simplistic theological rationalism, crass mishandlings of Genesis, Daniel and Revelation in the name of literal interpretation, ecclesiastical separatism and legalistic ethics. What prejudicial image, now, does the word 'inerrancy' suggest? What lapses are thought to mark those who use it to express their confidence that the Bible is true? I note five:
Arrogant unwillingness to learn from non-inerrantist theology; arrogant censure of non-inerrantist exegetes and theologians.
Bad theology. Diminishing the humanness of Scripture in order to maximise its divine character; centring on formulae about God from the epistles, prophets and psalms to the neglect of the theologically-shaped narratives that constitute the Bible's backbone; treating Scripture as merely propositional, that is, informational, and forgetting that it contains commands, promises, model responses, imaginative evocations and much else; declining to view revelation as personal, thus turning salvation by faith into salvation by orthodoxy.
Bad apologetics. A rationalistic triumphalism that claims to show that Scripture contains no historical or scientific inaccuracies, and to ground belief of what the Bible says about God on this demonstration.
Bad harmonising. A willingness to embrace unnatural expedients for bringing texts into line with each other (for instance, harmonising the second cock-crow of Mark 14.30 and 73 with the single cock-crow of Matthew 26.34 and 74-75 by supposing that Peter denied Christ six times, three before the first cock-crow and three after); a readiness to posit untraceable corruption of the text where the quest for harmonisation fails.
Bad interpretation. Sidelining the Bible's focus on saving knowledge of God through Jesus Christ to concentrate on factual details of small theological significance; then, for want of this focus, mishandling what Scripture says, or seems to say, about such topics as the ministry of women, Christian politics, environmental ethics and sexual ethics.
But none of these lapses, real or imaginary, is naturally or necessarily bound up with belief that the Bible is all true.
Unashamed of inerrancy
So I am not ashamed of the word inerrancy: I use it when I need to, and urge others to do the same, and justify its use by making three points, as follows.
First, be clear what it means. Like its twin, infallibility, it has a negative form but a positive thrust. If infallibility signifies full reliability, inerrancy means total trustworthiness. The two words are virtual synonyms, differing only in nuance and tone (inerrancy accenting trustworthiness as a source, infallibility accenting trustworthiness as a guide). Both have implications for our approach to Scripture, they express a 'self-involving' logic whereby we who use them commit ourselves in advance to receive as truth and guidance from God whatever we find Scripture telling us. But when it comes to the actual interpreting of Scripture, the only implication these words carry is that text must not be set against text (since one at least of any two contradictory statements must be false). 'It is not lawful for the Church to ... so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another,' says Anglican Article 20, much less may individual expositors do this. With this proviso, however, the exegetical explorations and hermeneutical reflections that the Bible itself prompts from age to age may and must go on freely. There is no restriction on scholarship here, just as (be it said) there are no inerrant interpreters: the main things in the Bible are clear. Creeds, confessions, and bases of faith embody them. Work on perspectives and details always remains to be done, and so it will doubtless be until Christ returns.
Second, be clear why inerrancy is asserted. We learn it from Christ and his apostles, Christianity's founders. The incarnate Son of God demonstrably based his ministry on the belief that his Bible (our Old Testament) was the utterance and instruction of his Father, given by human agency through the Holy Spirit; and he saw the obedience his Father required of him as the fulfilling of the prophetic pattern set for the Messiah, whereby he would first die for sins and then rise to reign. The Father's act of raising him most obviously vindicated him in all of this. Christ's apostles, promised and given the Holy Spirit to enable them to testify truly, built Christ's concept of Scripture into their teaching about him, and gave the world the New Testament, complementing and completing the Old. Belief in biblical inerrancy - confidence, that is, that what Scripture says, God says, and reverent refusal to allow that God ever misinforms or misleads us - is thus integral to authentic Christianity; just as it was universal in the churches until about two centuries ago.
Third, be clear what follows, at least for thoughtful people, when inerrancy is denied. Biblical inspiration becomes problematic at once, either you must redefine it to mean less than the divine origin and consequent truthfulness which for Jesus and the apostles was axiomatic (that is the course recommended by James Barr and others) or you must find a way of distinguishing within the text what is inspired and what is not. In either case, you part company with the founders of Christianity in a far-reaching way. Biblical interpretation also becomes problematic, for the controlling principle of internal consistency that Article 20 stated (the analogy of faith, or of Scripture, as the Reformers called it) can no longer be applied. And biblical authority now becomes the authority of the expert who tells us how much biblical teaching we should and should not believe, hereby palming off on us his own personal canon within the canon. Thus the faith-weakening, Christ-dishonouring cancer of arbitrary reductionist liberalism starts metastasizing once more within the historic Christian system.
When I lived in Britain, some evangelical biblical scholars dismissed the inerrancy question as a local American concern that could be safely ignored. But not so! It is universally relevant; it touches the heart of Christian faith and life; if the church is God's ark, anti-inerrancy is a leak in its hull which it would be perilous to ignore. In the 1960s, British evangelicals seemed to be seeing this clearly. I hope they will not lose sight of it in the 1990s.
Affirmation of inerrancy and the Gardner-McGrath debate
By Michael Peat - Oak Hill Theological College:
In inerrancy of Scripture is itself a Scriptural doctrine, as much work by evangelicals has reiterated over the years. See, for example, Warfield, Carson and Woodbridge.
The inerrancy of Scripture is not just a true doctrine, but an important one. The question of the truth or otherwise of Christianity is the most basic question there is, the one with which we confront the world, and the one on which the world attacks us. And this inevitably involves the truth of Scripture. There are attempts to avow the Christian faith, but not to challenge the world's worldview at every point. Over against these, evangelicalism has continually asserted that the full reliability of Christianity and of Scripture integrally involves the objective trustworthiness of the propositions in it. Indeed, one cannot discover or state Christianity apart from these propositional truths.
The term 'inerrancy' tends to focus on the factual and propositional centre of the reliability or perfection of Scripture.
Scripture, since it is God's Word, is perfect. This perfection is something that attaches to every aspect of what it does. Inerrancy speaks of Scripture's utter freedom from error, particularly in any propositional affirmations that may be found in it or rightly deduced from it, and in all of their weight.
This doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture takes such an important role for two reasons. First, experience has shown it to be a useful touchstone of biblical evangelical faithfulness in theology. (It can be a clear question when positions are fuzzy, and apparently for psychological reasons it has been difficult for some to be willing to use it, but reinterpret it, the way they have other theological language.) Second, it is an influential doctrine, one without which many other things start to fall apart, or at least lose their foundation.
Now Christians have always recognised that Scripture is not written in the form of a tradition 'systematic theology'. Even those evangelicals who focused most strongly on the 'propositional' elements in Scripture and on using Scripture to produce systematic theologies, the 'scholastic' Protestants of the 16th and 17th centuries, recognised and tried to take account of the historical, progressive, literary and humanly-accommodated form of Scripture. This was a necessary part of good hermeneutics. Greater understanding of linguistics and the way genres of literature are shaped has enabled us to improve this hermeneutic, and also helped to deepen our appreciation of the non-propositional aspects of Scripture (which all agree are present, even though Gordon Clark and perhaps Carl Henry think that these can be re-expressed propositionally).
Recent literary-philosophical debate about the nature of text, language, meaning and society has led to the development of new ways of viewing canonical texts. They are said to function as providers of 'stories' for a community: patterned discourses with which the community identifies and which serve to distinguish the limits of the community, and differentiate its identity from others.
Function al orabsolute?
The Scriptures would then have their status (in Hunsinger's words) as providers of 'the literary patterns of the text by which Jesus Christ's identity and significance as the risen Saviour are really disclosed to us.'
As absolutist understanding would be replaced by a functional one. (In an absolutist view, something is what it is. Scripture is what it is, being the Word of God and true, independently of its effects. In a functional view, what something is, is what it does. A functional understanding sees Scripture as that-which-has-certain-effects. Then what it is is understood through this personal knowledge of what it does.) Scripture could therefore be said to be true because it informed us about Christ and brought us to him, and unique because no other text do that in the same way or so well. In these terms, the story could be said to be 'true' (even, perhaps, inerrant). However, this need no longer imply factual, propositional truth. The significance of the idea of 'truth' (or 'inerrancy') has shifted.
If we are not careful, the understanding of the nature and meaning of the Scriptures could be replaced by another. Indeed, this might be part of a larger replacement of the understanding of the nature and meaning of theology itself.
This could then by very serious. The affirmation of the propositional inerrancy of Scripture (though not sufficient in itself) is one thing which helps us ensure that we are enriched by increased understanding of what language does, while not being impoverished through transmutation of our doctrine by an understanding flowing from a different worldview.
This is why I am with Paul Gardner in his call. The inerrancy of Scripture is true and its meaning must not be fudged.