What Is An Evangelical? Part 4.2: Inerrancy
All right, here we go with the next sub-point of part 4 — inerrancy.
What is inerrancy? Dictionary.com defines this word as “freedom from error or untruths; infallibility.” Infallibility is further defined as “incapable of erring” or “the quality of never making an error.” Further, under infallibility, it says that in the context of the Roman Catholic Church, infallibility means “incapable of error in expounding doctrine on faith or morals.”
I think that the majority of us are concerned with the last definition, the one posited of the RCC. I also think it is this definition that the majority of evangelicals hold. The Bible is inerrant in “expounding doctrine on faith or morals.”
Notice this is very different from a fundamentalist perspective on Scripture. A fundamentalist–who very likely holds to the dictation theory–would disagree with this perspective completely. A fundamentalist would likely say that every last word of Scripture (indeed the “jots and tittles” of my last post on the subject) is “100% correct, and if something out there contradicts it, then that something is just plain wrong!” Perhaps this is a good moment to expound on that verse.
When I say that God has inspired even the smallest marks of the Bible, I mean to say that He has used even these to get his message across without any error. I believe this is what evangelicals mean when they interpret a verse such as this in the plenary view (or plenary-verbal for those of you sticklers).
Now let’s take a look at what inerrancy does not mean.
Inerrancy does not mean the very text of Scripture is inerrant. That can only apply to the original manuscripts. What we have are copies of copies, but those copies have had the living daylights researched out of them. The result of all this research is that we have a text today that we are certain is at least 99% faithful to the original manuscripts. In fact, if you were to attempt a reconstruction of Scripture from the sayings of the early church fathers, you would get so clear a picture of the Bible that you’d see our modern versions differ to the degree of (if I remember the number correctly) 11 words or phrases, all of which vary in terms of spelling an the like, minor variances. And none of these variants affect a single doctrine of Scripture.
What I (and evangelicals as well, I believe) am after is an inerrant message. The text as we have it today cannot give a 100% inerrant text due to the variants that exist. But since none of the variants affect our doctrine, the message is in effect inerrant since it contains no doctrinal error.
Now, let’s look at my statement in my previous post:
Let’s start with this statement: If God is unchanging, then His revelation never changes. If God is perfect, then His revelation is perfect. In addition, if God is divinely in control of His revelation and the means by which that revelation is dispensed, then the Scriptures that result are unchanging and perfect. In other words, the Bible is inerrant.
“Sugar” Shane has much more to say in his comments.
If we understand this statement to apply to the original manuscripts, then I believe my statement is correct. Shane notes that I engage in a non-sequitur by ascribing to Scripture divine attributes. This is not my intention. My intention was to assert that God’s revelation to us, His words to us contain no error; not that Scripture itself is divine. Shane and I discussed this briefly at work one evening, and we concluded that I had worded this statement incorrectly. At this time I am not sure how I would reword this. Suffice it to say that I am not after idolizing the text, or “bibliolatry.” Shane also has more to say about bibliolatry and inerrancy in his comments that I think are worthy of reflection.
Shane, again, has something good to say about these last few paragraphs in his comments.
Perhaps I should take a moment to address the objection of “historical error.” Scripture has never been shown to be historically inaccurate. Every argument for the inaccuracy of Scripture that I have seen or heard of rests on an argument from evidence, that is, there is a lack of evidence for some of the things the Bible claims. This argument ignores that archaeology has never once contradicted Biblical claims; rather it has supported the Bible directly or indirectly. Just because some things have not been discovered yet does not mean that it does not or did not exist.
I believe a similar argument can be made against “scientific” error. Oftentimes the Bible will speak of “the sun rising and setting;” of “the four corners of the earth;” or some such thing. Critics love to use this language as “proof” of the inaccuracy of the Bible. This is a horrible argument. Suppose I described you in similar terms. “She’s just glowing. He is radiant. You’re an open book.” Does that mean you don’t exist? Does that mean I am wrong in the way I describe you? Humans do not glow, nor do they radiate, and they are not books. Yet I can accurately describe you by the use of these terms. It is a perspectival issue, not a question of literalness. Think about it; from a human perspective the sun actually does rise and set, and from the development of a compass we perceive the earth as having four corners: north, south, east, and west. Never mind that such a phrase “the four corners of the earth” can be seen as a metaphor for “the whole world” or something similar.
We need to be careful in ascribing error to something before we have thoroughly understood the perspective behind it. A rule all of us, including me, regularly break.
To sum up, the doctrine of inerrancy holds that the Bible, in its original manuscripts, is inerrant, and that we possess a message in our modern Scriptures that for all intents and purposes is also inerrant. It is because Scripture is inerrant in this way that we can say Scripture is sufficient for the things noted in Part 4: Sufficiency.
Whew, that was a journey! I look forward to taking this journey a bit deeper in January. But for now come back tomorrow for Part 5 in this series: Christian Service!