Posing the Question
Rachel, a sophomore social work major at a state university, has been building a relationship with her roommate, Molly. As the relationship has developed, she has found opportunities to share her faith in Jesus. Molly, a history major, has been showing interest in spiritual things. One day, things take a challenging turn. After listening to a lecture on ancient historiography, in which the New Testament Gospels were used as an example, Molly returned to their room and posed a series of troubling questions to Rachel. Why is the fourth Gospel’s record of Jesus’ words and deeds so unlike that of the other three? Why do the various Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection differ in some of their details? Is the Bible really historically reliable? Historic Christianity has always claimed that the Bible is the trustworthy written Word of God, but how can we be sure of this?
The Center and Its Contrasts
One of the core distinctives of evangelical theology is the conviction that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. With the apostle Paul, evangelicals affirm that “all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17; see also 2 Pet. 1:20–21). Following from this conviction of biblical inspiration is the equally important and universally shared evangelical claim of the authority of the Bible—that is, the Bible is recognized as the final authority on all matters of Christian faith and practice. Thus, with the Protestant Reformers, evangelicals hold to the principle of sola scriptura, that “Scripture alone” is the final authority on religious matters.
The evangelical position stands in contrast to a number of other stances people have adopted toward the Bible. Many non-Christians regard portions of the Bible as “inspiring,” but they do not believe the Bible was “inspired by God” (literally, “breathed by God”). Some non-Christians and even some non-evangelical Christians believe the Bible was in some sense divinely inspired, but they do not believe it is unique in this regard. Other religious writings may be equally inspired. Some liberal Christians, for example, suggest that the Qur’an or Bhagavad Gita were divinely inspired (even though they embody teachings that contradict the Bible). Mormons affirm that the Bible was inspired by God, but they believe the same is true of the Book of Mormon and other religious writings. They deny the principle of sola scriptura. Catholics deny the principle of sola scriptura as well, for they also regard the pope and church tradition as sources of religious authority.
In addition, non-evangelical theologians have proposed a number of views regarding biblical inspiration. For example, Karl Barth, founder of neo-orthodoxy, maintained that the Bible becomes the Word of God when God sovereignly chooses to make it so, but we cannot claim that this book is inspired in and of itself. Others who follow the Heilsgeschichte (“salvation history”) school of theology argue that God’s revelation is found in events, not writings. The Bible thus witnesses to the revelatory events of God in history but cannot itself be regarded as a divinely inspired book.
Against all such perspectives, evangelicals affirm that the Bible, and the Bible alone, is inspired by God and is the final authority on matters of faith and practice. At the same time, there is some disagreement among evangelicals concerning the question of factual errors in parts of the Bible that touch on things other than Christian faith and practice.
In the 1970s, what has come to be known as the “inerrancy debate” erupted in evangelical circles. The gauntlet was thrown down by the more conservative evangelical perspective with the publication of Harold Lindsell’s The Battle for the Bible (1976). He maintained that evangelicals have always affirmed that the Bible is absolutely inerrant on all matters that it addresses. Jack Rogers and Donald McKim responded in a work entitled The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible (1979). They defended the view that, while the Bible is infallible in that it does not fail believers when trusted to do what God inspired it to do, believers need not and should not claim that it is absolutely inerrant in all matters it addresses. More specifically, believers should not claim that the Bible is inerrant in some of its tangential scientific and historical statements.
In more recent years, many who hold to the “inerrancy” view have distanced themselves from Lindsell’s approach (and more simplistic “Fundamentalist” approaches), and have offered much more sophisticated, nuanced, and hermeneutically sensitive articulations of the inerrancy of the Bible. From the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy to more recent expressions grounded in “speech act” theory, many evangelicals today acknowledge the complex realities of the biblical texts, while still affirming that, in its original form, the Bible is entirely without error in all of the various matters that it addresses.
The two essays that follow will provide defenses of each of these two perspectives—first, a more nuanced expression of the inerrantist view, followed by an articulation of the infallibilist view.
Without Error of Any Kind (The Inerrantist View)
While the technical term inerrancy is of recent origin, the conviction that the Bible is “without error” is not. One cannot find a Christian theologian before the modern period (seventeenth century) who claimed that the Bible makes mistakes (assuming its meaning is properly understood). This is evidence that Christians throughout history have assumed the Bible is without error of any kind. It is “inerrant.”
According to the inerrantist view, the Bible is not simply without error in matters of faith and practice, as some evangelicals today teach. It is without error in all matters it addresses, including history and even science. The health, vibrancy, and stability of the church is greated affected by whether or not this traditional perspective is affirmed.
Having said this, it is important to note several qualifications. First, inerrantists do not claim that the Bible is without any apparent errors, only that it is without any real errors. They readily admit that there are things about the Bible our finite minds cannot explain. It is incorrect and arrogant, however, to locate the problem in the Bible itself rather than in our limited understanding of the Bible.
Second, the inerrancy of the Bible applies only to the original manuscripts (see autographs), not to later copies of these manuscripts. Textual criticism has revealed that many minor errors crept into later copies of the biblical documents. The scribes were not divinely inspired in making their copies, so we have no reason to expect their copies to be without error. The Bible we possess today is very close to the originals—the Bible is, in fact, the best attested work in all of history—but it is not identical to the originals.
Third, the inerrancy of the Bible relates to the authors’ original intent, not necessarily to our interpretation of a passage. Moreover, the inerrancy of an author’s writing must be understood in accordance with the genre of literature the author was using and the culture the author was writing within. For example, we cannot say that an ancient author was incorrect in what he said just because he did not employ the same standard of precision we employ in our culture. Nor can we charge an author with error for using expressions that are not literally true unless their intention was to communicate literal truth. When David speaks of God riding on clouds, blowing smoke out of his nostrils, and throwing thunderbolts (Ps. 18:8–15), for example, he is using metaphors to communicate God’s majesty. The expressions are not literally true, of course, but they nevertheless communicate profound truth.
The Biblical Argument
Since all evangelical Christians affirm that the Bible is the inspired foundation of all we believe, we must consult it to determine what we should believe about its nature. The Bible clearly teaches that it is without error. For example, throughout the Bible we learn the truth that God cannot lie or deceive (Num. 23:19; 1 Sam. 15:29; Titus 1:2). When God promises something, it must come to pass (e.g., Isa. 46:8–10). When he speaks, it must be true. If someone speaks in the name of God and what he said fails to come to pass, this is proof that the person was not a true prophet of God (Deut. 13:1–5; 18:20–22). The assumption, obviously, is that God cannot err, and all who are inspired to speak on his behalf cannot err. In the words of the psalmist, God’s “word is firmly fixed in heaven” (Ps. 119:89). And again, God’s “word is truth” and “every one of [his] righteous ordinances endures forever” (Ps. 119:160).
Jesus held this view. In fact, it is impossible to overemphasize Jesus’ trust in Scripture. He customarily used the phrases “Scripture says” and “God says” interchangably. He taught that “until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Matt. 5:18). He reiterated the point in even stronger terms when he claimed that “it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one stroke of a letter in the law to be dropped” (Luke 16:17). In simplest terms, Jesus believed that “scripture cannot be annulled” (John 10:35). When people were in error regarding theological matters, Jesus believed it was most fundamentally because they did not know Scripture well enough (Matt. 22:29). He assumed that if a person knew Scripture properly, that person would know truth. Scripture is true, through and through. It is impossible to imagine a stronger affirmation of the inerrancy of Scripture than that which Jesus gave. If we conclude that Scripture contains errors, we must also conclude that Jesus, the Son of God, was in error.
This same view is found throughout the New Testament. Paul taught that “all scripture is inspired by God” (2 Tim. 3:16). The term inspired literally means “God-breathed.” For Paul, as well as for Jesus and other New Testament authors, the words of the Bible came directly from the mouth of God. It would be as inconceivable to them that Scripture could err as it would that God could err. If it is indeed “impossible that God would prove false” (Heb. 6:18), it is impossible that Scripture would prove false. This level of confidence extends to the smallest details of Scripture. For example, Jesus wagers an entire argument on the single word “God” found in Psalms (John 10:34–36; cf. Ps. 82:6). And Paul bases an entire argument on the singular form of one word in Genesis (Gal. 3:16; cf. Gen. 13:16).
The only reasonable conclusion is that the Word of God itself supports the inerrantist view.
1. Church tradition.
As noted earlier, theologians throughout history have assumed that the Bible is without error. Augustine reflected the universal conviction when he wrote, “Only to those books which are called canonical have I learned to give honor so that I believe most firmly that no author in these books made any error in writing.”1
Similarly, Martin Luther insisted that “Scripture cannot err,”2
and John Calvin referred to the Bible as “the inerring standard.”3
2. A logical argument. Consider the following argument:
a. God is perfect and thus cannot err.
b. Scripture is God-breathed (inspired).
c. What God breathes retains his perfect character.
d. Scripture cannot err.
The argument is logically sound. The question is, are all the premises valid? With few exceptions, evangelicals generally embrace a and b. Some do not embrace c, however. Yes, Scripture is “inspired,” they say, but this does not mean it is inerrant. Consider how paradoxical this position is, however. It is like saying that a certain person never lies but that this characteristic does not necessarily apply to what he says! What is the force of claiming that God cannot err if this does not apply to what comes out of his mouth? Premise c should be accepted, therefore, and this leads directly to the conclusion that Scripture cannot err.
3. An argument from epistemology. If we do not accept the view that the Bible is inerrant, then we must accept that the decision as to when the Bible is and is not speaking correctly is in our court. But this means that we have authority over the Bible instead of the other way around. When the Bible agrees with us, we accept its authority. When it does not, we don’t. This is an impotent authority.
Some may respond that we may assume the Bible is inerrant in all matters of faith and practice but not in so-called irrelevant matters of history or science. There are two problems with this suggestion, however.
First, what inerrant authority did we use to develop this criterion of what is and is not inerrant in the Bible? There is no such authority. This is simply a convenient thing to believe, so some choose to believe it. As shown, it certainly is not rooted in Scripture, tradition, or the teaching of Jesus.
Second, how are we to decide what is and is not irrelevant? For example, what is to prevent someone from concluding that Paul was simply reflecting an irrelevant aspect of his historically conditioned culture when he denounced fornication or homosexuality (Rom. 1:21–32; 1 Cor. 6:9–10)? Indeed, how are we to decide what is “history” as opposed to a “matter of faith”? Does the story of the flood belong in the category of inerrant teaching relevant to faith or in the category of irrelevant history?
The point is that if we do not have an unassailable foundation for our faith, everything is in principle up for grabs.
4. A historical argument. The Bible tells us that the heart is desperately wicked (Jer. 17:9). There is a side of fallen humanity that consistently wants to run away from God. This is why it is so dangerous to deny the inerrancy of Scripture. We cannot trust our own fallen hearts and minds to decide what is true. Invariably, our perception is skewed. As fallen rebels, we will always be inclined to conclude that those aspects of Scripture we do not like are in error, while those aspects we do like are true.
An honest assessment of the recent history of the church in the West bears this out. While it is true that heretical groups have at times affirmed the inerrancy of Scripture (e.g., the early Unitarians, Jehovah’s Witnesses), it is also true that the denial of inerrancy has almost always led to some form of heresy if not total unbelief. To illustrate, consider that until the twentieth century the majority of college...