Tuesday, October 19, 2010


Trevin Wax over at his blog got me thinking again about inerrancy.  I don't try to be enigmatic, but the only reason I believe inerrancy is correct is because I think it's true!  However (to loosely paraphrase Socrates) unexamined thoughts aren't worth holding dearly to.  So let me lay out my thinking for critique.

Non-negotiable presuppositions (we can negotiate them in another post!)
1. God exists and communicates
2. God is one of the dual authors of the Bible
3. God doesn't make mistakes

Which means the question of inerrancy/errancy is really about does (or to what extent) God allow errors in Scripture?

If God allows human error in the Bible, then we have 3 options:
  1. God allows only small and easily recognizable errors
  2. God also allows some really large clangers but they're still recognizable
  3. God allows all sorts of errors some of which we haven't even discovered yet
for one of the following reasons:
  1. God wants to show the fallenness of the Bible's human authors
  2. For reasons that are entirely his own 
  3. For a mixed bag of reasons not limited to: evealing human sinfulness, encouraging scholarship, as a way of commenting on complexity in the world, or some as yet unrevealed purpose
Any line of argument would need to account for the idea that Scripture is to be trusted, (inerrancy moves the fallible human thing to interpretation) and some sort of explanation of how we spot an error. 


Luke said...

Some rules for commenting: let's have positions first and then we can debate their merits.

Jon said...

Luke I've always had the problem that I'm not sure what the term "inerrancy" means. In an earlier discussion on your blog Jereth referred to the Chicago Declaration on Inerrancy which I've downloaded along with its two follow-up statements and been mulling over for a post of my own. I'll go into this further when I've digested it properly but a couple of thoughts.

First to follow your rule. My position is that I don't believe the Bible is without error. The Chicago statement highlights three problems with the concept of inerrancy as held by Protestant Evangelicals.

1. The argument for inerrancy is circular. We believe the Bible is inerrant because it says so. The Chicago statement rejects any agency of the church in defining and giving authority to the Bible. The Catholic version at least provides an historical context, saying the Bible is authoritative because it is written by the Prophets and Apostles or under their authority and ratified by church tradition, but this then attributes inerrancy to church tradition as well.

2. Even if we leave aside the fact that it's a circular argument, the notion of inerrancy would need to be demonstrated from scripture. I would challenge you to do so.

3. The concept of inerrancy can only be applied to forms of literature that claim to be factual. Hence it could be applied to the Gospels and to the letters in the New Testament, and possibly to the historical books of the Old assuming they claim factuality. By its nature it can't be applied to the psalms, most of the writings of the prophets, or the the apocalyptic literature which consist respectively of songs, poems and allegories.

So what do I believe? I believe that the Bible is inspired in that it was written by people who were guided by the Holy Spirit and who had encountered God. Because of this it shows us more clearly what God is like than anything else we have avaiable. But the people who wrote it were fallible, they did not write or record perfectly or always understand what they had learned, they were bound by their own time and place, and hence their words need to be sifted for the truth they contain.

Mark Earngey said...

Thanks for the post Luke - totally agree, and am encouraged by it!

Luke said...

So Jon, just to clarify: you you would hold that God allowed human error, but to what extent and how recognizable is that error?

Jon said...

You ask all the hard questions Luke. Excuse me for not answering directly as I don't think the answer is as straightforward as the question. Yes, God allows and continues to allow human error because he has made us independent beings and rejoices in the fact that we are seperate from him.

1. The Bible is not one book, it's a collection of books and each needs to be approached on its own terms. The idea of "inerrancy" doesn't help much with this, it's much more important to understand the book and what its saying.

2. I suspect the idea of inerrancy as described by the Chicago Statement would be foreign to most if not all of the bible authors.

3. It's our job to interpret and live the message of the bible in our time, including sifting its message in the light of our own circumstances and hearing what God says to us through it and his Spirit. "The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life."

Anonymous said...
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Jon said...

More on the subject here.

Anonymous said...

Inerrancy is a tough word to use. Full disclosure: I'm with Jon.

I'm comfortable with errors in scripture. It doesn't diminish the truth of the scriptures for two reasons:

1. Genre. This seems to be what Jon is alluding to. Genesis is an example of this. It is a mixed bag of genres. There is history, oral tradition, and poetry (amongst others) all in one. The creation accounts in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 are not consistent. In Gen 1 the animals come first. In Gen 2, man comes first (not in the NIV though but that is the NIV's fault). Error? Only if it is being judged by our modern sensibilities. What is more clear is that there is a shift in genre and the details are not as important as the narrative. By my standards it is an error, but error isn't even a helpful term for this discrepancy because facts were not the substance of the message.

2. Context. The Bible was written by inspired men who lived in a pre-scientific world. We know without doubt that their cosmology was wrong. The Bible refers to the moon as a great light. We now know that it isn't a light but reflects light from the sun. Error? Eh, more like a naive cosmology but it is still factually incorrect. One of MANY examples.

Inspired, yes. Innerant? It makes no claim to be. The evidence doesn't seem to support it. That's a word I am uncomfortable with. True? Yes.

I realize you don't know me. I am a youth pastor from the US, but I did an internship at Wellspring Anglican in Sandy Bay a few years back. Found your blog through a friend's.

Luke said...

Welcome Joey,

I think I've seen you posting on Arthur and Tamie's blog. I can also see Wellspring from where I'm sitting not that that means particularly much.

Hi Jon,

Good post but I was torn whether to put my response to you there or here.

Jon and JoeyError "a deviation from correctness / a mistake"

I understand you both see ambiguity, regard it as deliberate so want to respect it, so perhaps my question for you is impossible but I'm genuinely curious in how you would both define the extent of the errors and God's purpose in allowing that amount of error.

To again paraphrase Socrates (via Kreeft) you either stay in the cave or leave, it's impossible to hover at the entrance. In other-words (and I mean this respectfully and rationally) you can't criticize Inerrancy without providing an explanation of errancy.

Do you see what I mean?

Jon said...

Hi Luke and Joey, I'm supposed to be doing some grungy difficult work tasks this morning so I can procrastinate just a little more by writing to you. Joey I'm related to Luke (I married his mum's cousin - as if you wanted to know) and live up in Brisbane.

Luke I think there are two ways of answering your question about error.

The first is - the question you ask determines the answer you get. I think the question "is it without error" is an appropriate question for a scientific treatise where the purpose is to arrive at a precise answer to a precise question. In philisophy, the primary question would be "is the reasoning sound". In rhetoric it would be "is it convincing". In poetry it would be "is it beautiful" (to oversimplify that one!). So I think you've asked the wrong question.

However, since your not the only one who asks it and it is certainly an important issue, I think the answer on your own terms is twofold. God communicates indirectly with humans, and he is ultimately incomprehensible.

On indirectness, the stories of Moses and Israel wandering in the wilderness suggest that if we see God face to face we will die. Therefore he operates through human messengers and their fallibility is written all through the Bible.

On incomprehensibility, if God is the creator of the universe and we are grains of dust on one small planet, its hardly likely that we would be able to fully understand Him.

Growing up with my father and then spending my whole adult life hanging out with the Westermans (Luke's mum's family, Joey) means I tend to just leap in and say what I think. However I'm aware that this subject has a strong emotional component and perhaps that makes me the fool rushing in where angels fear to tread. Letting go of the idea of inerrancy can feel like falling off a cliff. As a Protestant this step is equivalent to abandoning certainty and that's not a step to be taken lightly.

Luke said...

Jon, I won't push you any more on it, BTW I'm not offended in the slightest by your opinion or the way in which you expressed it! Maybe it's the way my brain works but I need to know what and why I'm believing and if I change my mind I need to know the ins and outs of the new thing.

BTW Joey, non-relatives do read and post on my blog!!

Allan said...

The Bible is inspired and infallible in the same way the Church is inspired and infallible. After all, if the Bible is God's word, the Church is God's body. The same Spirit that inspired the Bible fills the Church.

Now the Church as mere mortals experience it is a very confusing struggle between wolves and sheep, wheat and weeds. It's far from easy to understand. The Bible is much the same.catersts

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the welcome.

I see two questions being asked and I'll try to address each.

1. What are the extent of errors in scripture?

I have to say that I don't think the extent is that important. Theologically I would contend (though there is room to correct me here) that scripture is sound. Historically I would contend that scripture is helpful. The extent is only important if we hold that error takes away from scriptures purpose. I'm speaking mainly of the Old Testament. I think there is much stronger support for the historicity of the New Testament. But, again, the extent IMHO doesn't matter as much as the next questions answer...

2. What is God's purpose in allowing error?

I don't think errors are of much concern to the purpose of scripture - establishing God's people through whom the Messiah and ultimately God's Kingdom would come. Scripture, in this sense, is more theological than historical/factual/scientific/etc. That doesn't mean that there is no history/fact/or maybe even science, just that they are not that important scriptures ultimate purpose. It is believed, for instance, that Moses wrote Torah. But we also know that in Deuteronomy Moses died so somebody else had to have written at least parts of Torah. We see shifts in authorship all throughout OT books (Samuel is another example). These editors were intent on some theologically important issues: the supremacy of Israel, the oneness and supremacy of God, and the coming Messiah. The details of history are only as important as they fit in this theological framework. God doesn't have a purpose for error because errors aren't much of an issue. There are some. That in no way takes away from God's work through scripture.

I think we can be critical of inerrancy without providing an example of errancy. If inerrancy is not true the opposite does not have to be true either. What if neither term is particularly useful in describing scripture? I just think inerrant comes with too much baggage.

I believe what scripture says about itself: That it is useful and good for teaching, that it is God breathed (or the breath of God, more accurately). I affirm that scripture is true and good and that is enough for me to follow it and try to do what it says.

By the way, were you in Tasmania in 2005? I feel as though we would have met if you were.

Anonymous said...

I think Joey has it right when he suggests that 'no inerrancy' may not actually imply 'errancy'.

1. 'Inerrancy' is a particular concern of literate Christianity. Oral cultures do not accord the written word the same kind of importance as we do; Christians in oral cultures are much less preoccupied with inerrancy as a topic of discussion, let alone as a doctrine.

It's worth noting that the NT Greco-Roman world was comprised of oral cultures. Thus in 99% of occurrences (says Ben Witherington), the phrase 'the word of God' in the NT refers to oral proclamation, and never refers to the written Hebrew Bible.

2. We often approach inerrancy deductively (much as you've done), starting with a list of abstract truths, or a theological syllogism, which then appears to require inerrancy.

What if we worked inductively, however, moving from Scripture outwards? We may not find Scripture quite so forthcoming.

Take the famous phrase in 2 Tim 3:16: all Scripture is God–breathed. The logic here is not God-breathed = true so much as God-breathed = useful. Scripture is of God, Scripture represents God, Scripture will achieve God's purposes.

3. To return to your post, Luke, I think the big question is raised by your 'non-negotiable presupposition 3'. We certainly know what we think a mistake looks like. But what is a mistake in God's terms?


Luke said...

Thanks Joey, I agree that the primary purpose of Scripture is theology and that perhaps we need need to rephrase the question.

(2005, yes maybe, I need more clues, you can email me at

Arthur, I'm not convinced that inerrancy is a uniquely modern phenomena, this is because I think (and maybe I'm straying from my extremist roots here) but inerrancy means truth and authority, and an oral culture would also be concerned with that. Also I haven't got over my reluctance cultivated at Ridley about relying on extra-biblical information. I agree with you last point what is a 'mistake".

General Comment

It's funny with this topic, I'm floundering to express myself, my undergraduate philosophy isn't much chop. I feel like I've crawled into a large cavern filled with strange animals and I don't know how to describe them.

Intuitively I'm suspicious of the (and I am being reductionistic for purposes of space) "it's so complex we can't know anything for sure" argument. I think it's legitimate to seek and defend definitions of truth and authority. I need someone who doesn't believe in inerrancy but isn't going to get sloppy with their logic or trick me with some smuggled in progressive nonsense down the line.

Jon said...

I promise not to smuggle in progressive stuff, nonsense or otherwise - it'll all be out there in the open.

Here's what I think.

Apart from just agreeing with me (ha ha) the best way for you to get to the truth is to frame your questions differently. When you ask "is the Bible inerrant?" you do two things. Firstly, you ask a closed ended question - it can only be answered with a yes or no, or perhaps a maybe. This leads you down a blind alley. Secondly, you assume that the important thing about the Bible is its accuracy or precision, so that's what the discussion turns around.

You're right to be suspicious of the complexity thing but the point is not that its so complex we can't know anything, its that because its complex the answer will not be simple.

You would get more value out of open-ended questions like

- what is the nature of the Bible? and of the individual books within it?

- how do its various parts connect with each other?

- what is it about the Bible that has made it the foundation text of Christianity? What is it about it that makes it authoritative and what is the nature of this authority?

- what does the Bible say about itself? How do the writers of and people depicted in the New Testament use the Old?

Just to suggest a few - you could come up with a lot more for yourself.

Anonymous said...

Hi Luke

My comment about 'literate Christianity' was pertaining to relatively recent formulations of inerrancy. I have in mind, for example, the qualifications about 'the original autographs'.

The question for me is, Why can't 'infallible' keep doing the doctrinal job it has always done?

I do think we're hard pressed to find full-blown inaccuracies in Scripture. But I think that's kind of beside the point...