Friday, April 28, 2006

Inerrancy and Infallability: the final product

This is the final product of my research and thinking about the inerrancy and infallability debate among theologians and Bible Scholars. I haven't proof read it very thouroughly so just bear with me if you notice any problems. Enjoy!

The Bible has been the subject of much debate. Its authority has been argued by and opposed by popular scholarship. Though biblical authority has been generally agreed upon within Christian circles there remains a debate within the Church on its own scripture. Historically, Christian Theologians have agreed on the accuracy and authority of Scripture but have not agreed on how the Bible is authoritative or in what aspect the Bible is accurate and how it is to be incorporated. The interpretation of scripture is approached from various perspectives including “strict inerrantist,” “limited inerrantist” and “infallabilitist positions.”[1] Though all of these views carry credibility and good reason I will lean towards the infallabilitist perspective.

Strict inerrantists contend that scripture, being “God breathed” (2Timothy 3:16), is without error. “‘Strict’ inerrantists claim that the Bible is without error whenever it speaks to any subject – history, geography, astronomy, measurement, science – even when the details included are incidental to the central intent of the text.”[2] Inerrantists argue saying that Jesus even saw scripture as Inerrant. They argue that “Jesus consistently treats Old Testament Historical Narratives as straightforward records of fact.” “To Him, the God of the Old Testament was the Living God, and the teaching of the Old Testament was the teaching of the Living God. To Him what scripture said God said.”[3] This is the general inerrantist view of scripture.[4] To them abandonment of this view is abandonment of evangelicalism. “Former evangelicals have decided that, though it means opposing Jesus’ own teachings about the validity of scripture they must accept negative higher criticism. It’s as simple as that.”[5] For example higher criticism says that Moses didn’t write the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) but Jesus referred to it as “the book of Moses” (Matthew 5.17-43). According to this perspective to accept the higher criticism would be to deny Jesus’ teachings. “One cannot have it both ways: either the Bible contains errors and it is therefore fallible or it is infallibly free of mistakes.”[6]

Most proponents of the inerrancy perspective ascribe inerrancy only to the original texts or “autographa” which is “to refer to the first or original copies of the biblical documents, that is, the material that the author actually wrote himself.”[7] Any mistake in translation is disregarded if it is not the “scripture as originally written.”[8] The original manuscripts are seen as inerrant because it seems that the scriptures were seen as divinely inspired from their origination. “We may say that the books of the Old Testament, being immediately inspired of God, were recognized as such by His people from the time when they first appeared.”[9] This means that if we find an error or an apparent contradiction problem we must assume that it is a variation from the original and that the original text could not have carried the same error otherwise we cannot call it the word of a perfect God.

Inerrancy also gives no room for disagreement. We are accountable to scripture’s authority in every realm. In every matter wherever it speaks about any sort of topic we must take it as coming from God without question. No matter what evidence there may be against it or whatever contrary feelings we may have. “Some people would in any case want to… deny that we are bound to believe or practice all that the New Testament says.”[10] Inerrancy does not allow for such disagreement. Anyone who carries such disagreement and still hold that the Bible has authority and carries the gospel message is seen by inerrantists as a “liberal” at best. One argument against this liberal view is that it is not logical. In this view “it is alleged, first that the gospel and the spiritual content of the Bible can be affirmed without regarding the scripture as inerrant. Secondly that Christ can be adequately preached without Scripture being inerrant; and thirdly, that one can sensibly affirm the infallibility of the Bible even though one does not agree to the veracity of all its details.”[11] In other words the gospel message cannot be inerrant, as we should claim, without the entirety of scripture also being inerrant. “For all three involve logical blunders fully capable of ruining one’s bibliology but one’s theology as a whole.”[12] In response to the liberal view several creeds and statements have been formed by the advocates of inerrancy. One of these statements in the Ligonier Statement:
We believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the inspired and inerrant Word of God: We hold the Bible to be the inspired and inerrant word of God: We hold the Bible, as originally given through human agents of revelation, to be infallible and see this as a crucial article of faith with implications for the entire life and practice of all Christian people. With the great fathers of Christian history we declare our confidence in the total trustworthiness of the Scripture, urging that any view which imputes to them a lesser degree of inerrancy than total is in conflict with the Bible’s self-testimony in general and with the teaching of Jesus Christ in particular. Out of obedience to the Lord of the Church we submit ourselves unreservedly to his authoritative view of Holy Writ.[13]

Among the names signed on this statement are theologians John M. Frame, J. I. Packer, Clark H. Pinnock, R.C. Sproul, and John Warrick Montgomery.

Another, more prominent statement is the “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy” which was “produced at the Hyatt Regency O'Hare in Chicago in the fall of 1978, during an international summit conference of concerned evangelical leaders.”[14] The statement was compiled and signed by “the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy”[15] which included evangelical theologians such as Norman L. Geisler, John Gerstner, Carl F. H. Henry, Kenneth Kantzer, Harold Lindsell, John Warwick Montgomery, Roger Nicole, J.I. Packer, Robert Preus, Earl Radmacher, Francis Schaeffer, R.C. Sproul, and John Wenham. In the opening statement the overall trajectory of the document is summarized:
“Holy Scripture, being God's own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches: It is to be believed, as God's instruction, in all that it affirms; obeyed, as God's command, in all that it requires; embraced, as God's pledge, in all that it promises.”[16]

This document has been noted as one of the clearest and most carefully compiled affirmations of biblical inerrancy.[17]

Limited inerrantists, like strict inerrantists, see the Bible as inerrant but only concerning faith and practice.[18] Anything lying outside of the major purpose of scripture is incidental and may carry negligible errors. Thus limited inerrantists affirm the “unity factor” of scripture which suggests that the Bible has one unified message despite any “conflicts or tensions” within the text itself.[19] The trustworthiness worthiness lies within this unified meaning and only an inerrant message can be trusted. As Brian McLaren puts it:

“Without focusing on the Big Story, we are tempted to impose alien readings on the Bible. For example, if we reduce the Bible to an elaborate answer to the question, ‘how does a person go to heaven after he dies?’ – if we think this is the Big Question the whole Bible is answering – we’ll be prone to misunderstand major parts of the Bible that were written before that question was on anybody’s mind (like the entire Old Testament).”[20]

They embrace possible problems within the text and assemble their doctrine with this understanding. Instead of blaming apparent problems on insufficient translation or recovery like the strict inerrantists do the limited inerrantists understand that these problems may also exist within the autographa. Contradictions such as the age of Jehoiachin at the Beginning of his reign (see II Kings 24:8 and II Chronicles 36:9)are not explained away but embraced and seen as incidental errors.

Moderate inerrancy or infallibility affirms the Scriptural authority in terms of “faith and practice” or “religion and ethics.”[21] Its proponents are less concerned with the things that are incidental to the text; instead they focus much more on the intention of the authors.[22] The word “inerrancy” therefore is rejected as “inadequate”[23] in describing the biblical documents. These theologians “prefer to speak of the unique and authoritative witness of scripture to the character, acts, and will of God without using problematic terms like…‘inerrancy.’”[24] They still hold that the Scriptures are infallible in that the authors do not mean to deceive or lie. The Scriptures and are, by proper definition, infallible on matters concerning faith and life application.[25] Therefore they lay aside all debate about scientific, geographical, and historical accuracy and focus more on theological accuracy and sometimes even affirm that things did not happen the way the scriptures say they did. One extreme advocate for this perspective is Marcus J. Borg, a professor of religion and theologian involved in historical Jesus study. Borg argues that the Scripture, particularly the New Testament documents are not “inspired directly by God” and are not historical documents. [26] He considered then as “proclamation” rather than history especially asserting that “the gospel of John is highly symbolic and essentially not historical.”[27] The truth of scripture lies not in its history but in its declarations. Something doesn’t have to have happened for it to be true. Scripture, in this view, becomes a compilation of meaningful stories rather than historical truths. Others have taken slightly less extreme positions yet still fit nicely into the infallabilitist perspective. Some affirm the historical validity of scripture yet at the same time ascribe its importance not in that it happened but that it happens in a sense in our lives. The Bible is “alive today.”[28] In other words its truth lies in the fact that its stories and propositions play out in present reality. Infallabilitists will less likely argue a point using scriptural proposition rather they will search for meaning within the over Biblical story as well as the underlying specific stories. Borg represents a very extreme perspective on inerrancy, almost reducing the scriptures to an elaborate book of meaningful stories and metaphors. Some infallabilitists have taken a less extreme stance than Borg, giving historical validity to scripture yet at the same time declaring that its greatest truth doesn’t depend on its historical accuracy. They argue for the historicity of scripture but at the same time leave room for errors. They will argue that the inerrantist perspective narrows the scripture down to universal truth which carries the same meaning for all situations. The Bible cannot be reduced to metaphor but we cannot fall to the inerratist extreme viewing it as timeless truth.[29] The Bible cannot be simplified to either extreme: metaphor or universal truth because it is not simple. It needs to be continually reinterpreted. The Bible is “like a gem with seventy faces, and each time you turn the Gem, the light refracts differently giving you a reflection you haven’t seen before.”[30] To the infallabilitist inerrancy tries to put the gem into a fixed position and keep its meaning forever etched in stone.

For infallabilitsts genre is of extreme importance. We cannot read poetry and expect the same kind of clear-cut truth statements we would receive from a scientific document.[31] The Bible is not written like a history book or a science book rather in it we find expressive stories and eloquent poetry.[32] Stories are read as stories, poetry as poetry, and speech narrative as speech narrative. So therefore any clear-cut statement which we find in poetry cannot be taken the same that they would be in another genre like science. It is the same with stories. Much of scripture is non-fiction story which, like poetry, makes a larger point as a whole.

One famous debate between inerrantists and infallibilitists concerns genre, it is the creation narrative. We understand this to be poetic in genre. In poetry single lines are rarely taken seriously apart from the whole as a truth statement. The lines of a poem do not have to be “true” in order to get a larger point across, therefore we find the truth of a poem in it’s point not its’ literal statements. The obvious point of the creation poem is that the creation is “good” (Genesis 1). This statement is repeated time and time again. So if the fact that “it was good” is the point then how long it took to be created is incidental. Despite the fact that the amount of days is incidental to the major point of the text, inerrantists, seeing that what scripture says God says, argue that the Bible declares that the Earth was created in seven literal days. Infallabilitists would argue that the bible doesn’t even speak on the subject. It only tells us what creation was like; “it was good.”

So in reading scripture in its proper context it may seem like we are making it more complicated but infallailitists would argue that we are actually making it as complicated as it should be. Inerrancy is simple and one dimensional whereas infallibility leaves room for one to read scripture more properly; with a “multilayered” perspective.[33] There are in this perspective multiple interpretations of scripture all of which are in the end a search for God’s real meaning.[34] Inerrancy has more trouble allowing for genres because a story and poetry can say something which is completely untrue in order to represent truth. Something doesn’t have to have happened for it to be true if it is a story or a poem.[35]

Whereas inerrantists have in the past been inclined to generate creeds and statements of faith, concerning their view of scripture, to which the majority of inerrantists hold, infallabilitists have not been so inclined. There is no creed or ststement of faith, refuting the inerrancy of scripture, to which all ifallablitists hold. There are, however, certain theologians and literature which are more influential than others. One greatly influential work among infallabilitists and moderate inerrantists is one produced by Thomas Wright, Bishop of Durham, called “How can the Bible be authoritative?” In this article Wright redefines Biblical Authority explaining how authority does not simply mean “controlling.” Wright puts it this way:

“When people in the church talk about authority they are very often talking about controlling people or situations. They want to make sure that everything is regulated properly, that the church does not go off the rails doctrinally or ethically, that correct ideas and practices are upheld and transmitted to the next generation. ‘Authority’ is the place where we go to find out the correct answers to key questions such as these. This notion, however, runs into all kinds of problems when we apply it to the Bible. Is that really what the Bible is for? Is it there to control the church? Is it there simply to look up the correct answers to questions that we, for some reason, already know? As we read the Bible we discover that the answer to these questions seems in fact to be ‘no.’”[36]

There are problems and “misreading” on both sides of the argument.[37] A strict inerrancy can place scripture in a single dimension making it a book of answers and timeless truths rather what it really is; a narrative.[38] From inerrancy we get ideas that in order to be a Christian we must believe the historicity of certain events that may not have actually happened, such as seven day creation or Jonah being eaten by a whale. There are those who believe that the denial of one part of scripture is the denial of the whole thing altogether. The problem with this is that those who say it think that they are being objective. This is simply not true. It is by their interpretation that the Earth was created in seven days. To deny seven days is not necessarily denying anything in the Bible rather it is a denial of that particular individual’s interpretation. The Bible is a lot more complicated than people would like to think.[39] There is also a problem with taking genre for grated as many strict inerrantists have done. We have to read the Bible in its correct genre. We must, for example, read poetry as poetry. Inerrantists try to mold the Bible into their understanding of authority, which is “straight-forward prose,”[40] rather than allowing for a different understanding of authority which allows for non-fiction and poetry to be authoritative. Honest Scholarship must recognize apparent problems in the Bible rather than try to explain them away therefore I cannot abide in the Chicago Statement.

On the other hand extreme infallibility also creates problems. In reducing scripture to a compilation of meaningful stories that never happened and do not carry any historical validity they are abandoning an important hermeneutic. The Bible was written by “real people in real places at real times.”[41] Before we can interpret it for ourselves we have to know what it meant to the people who actually wrote it. The truth we find in the Bible was truth for someone else long before it was truth for us. I agree that the greatest truth of scripture is that it is truly alive today and happening in our lives not that it happened to some other people a long time ago but truth has to be grounded in reality. Everything in scripture was written because in some way shape or form it was true and so I must assume that something actually happened to prompt the writers to write down these truths. The author had to have some reason to believe that the things he or she was writing were actually true.

Though the extreme views of infallibility are dangerous it is more honest scholarship to recognize and accept apparent problems in the Biblical texts. Though the Bible is God’s word it must be accepted by faith not perfect certainty. We must have faith that, despite all the problems that may or may not have occurred in its writing, the truth of God and His relationship to people is sufficiently communicated in its pages. Accepting the Bible as infallible but not inerrant requires a level of faith and trust. We must trust that through it God can speak and it is truly by His illumination that we understand it. We must trust that with illumination from God the Scripture will not mislead or deceive us. I believe that “Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3.16).” Its authority is what is truly important. If all we know about the Bible never leads us to actually do what it calls us to do then inerrent or not it is useless. The infallabilitist who lives his life according to scripture will be closer to the heart of scripture than any strict inerrantist who does not. To acknowledge scripture and not to live it out is not different from the religious to whom God said “you acknowledges God with their mouth but your heart is far from Me” (Isaiah 29.13). As an infallabilitist no inerrantist should be alienated from me nor I from him. Since so near the heart of scripture, despite our views, is the concept of community and love we should never stray so far as not to be able to accept and embrace one another. In the past this debate has been divisive in the Church and I am much less interested in arguing my viewpoint than I am mending the broken relationships within the Church. For “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand” (Mark 3.25).

End Notes:
[1] Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 2000) 399.[2] Ibid. 399.[3] Norman L. Geisler, Inerrancy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1979) 6.[4] See also the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy from Geisler, Inerrancy 502.[5] Ibid. 85.[6] John Warwick Montgomery, God’s Inerrant Word (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship Inc. 1974) 32. [7] Michael A Grisanti, “Inspiration, inerrancy, and the OT canon: The place of textual updating in an inerrant view of scripture,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Vol. 44, Iss. 4 (2001) in ProQuest Religion [online database] accessed April 24, 2006.[8] Geisler, Inerrancy 296.[9] N. B. Stonehouse and Paul Wooley, The Infallible Word (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1958) 69.[10] I. Howard Marshall, Biblical Inspiration (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company 1982)95.[11] Montgomery, Inerrant Word, 23.[12] Ibid.[13] Ibid. 7[14] Philip R. Johnson, The Spurgeon Archive,, accessed April 25, 2006. [15] Gordon R Lewis, “Is propositional revelation essential to Evangelical spiritual formation?,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Vol. 46, Iss. 2 (2003): in ProQuest Religion [online database] accessed April 25, 2006.[16] Johnson, Spurgeon,
[17] See also Timothy George, “What we mean when we say it's true” Christianity Today, Vol.39, Iss. 12 (1995): in ProQuest Religion [Online database] accessed April 25, 2006.[18] Grenz, Theology 399.[19] Gerald H. Wilson, Hermeneutics: Why Do We Have To Interpret Scripture Anyway? From Christian College Christian Calling (Lanham: AltaMira Press, 2005.) 47.[20] Brian McLaren and Tony Campolo, Adventures in Missing the Point (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003) 78-79.[21] Grenz, Theology 400.[22] R.T. France, “Evangelical disagreements about the bible,” Churchman 96/3 (1982): 232.[23] Grenz, Theology 400.[24] Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: an introduction to Christian theology second edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans publishing company, 2004.) 414.[25] Stephen T. Davis, The Debate about the Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1977) 23.[26] Marcus Borg, Me and Jesus from A Portrait Of Jesus,, accessed April 25, 2006[27] Ibid.[28] Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 2005) 58.[29] N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999) 181.[30] Bell, Velvet Elvis, 60.[31] Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981).[32] Tremper Longman III, Storytellers and poets in the Bible from Harvie M. Conn Inerrancy and Hermeneutic (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988) 139.[33] N.T. Wright, The Last Word (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005) 121-127.[34] See also Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christian, (San Francisco: Lossey-Bass, 2001) 50.[35] See also Marcus Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001).[36] N.T. Wright, How Can The Bible Be Authoritative? From N.T. Wright Page, accessed April 27, 2006[37] Wright, The Last Word, 106-113.[38] Bell, Velvet Elvis, 63.[39] See also Bell, Velvet Elvis, 41-46.[40] Conn, Inerrancy and Hermeneutic, 139.[41] Bell, Velvet Elvis, 61.


Mike Exum said...

This is a great paper. I did not read it close enough to catch any grammatical type errors, not that you were asking, but you did say it was an early draft. However, I suspect that once you've redrafted it thoroughly, you will receive a top grade on it. And you helped me to see the issue more clearly than I ever have before. Well done.

It seems that you have laid out the case of 3 positions with regard to the inerrancy/infallability of scripture. You have been fair to each position, in my estimation. You seem to either have joined up with the camp that hangs with infallability, or at least you have leanings in that direction. I think that if the choices are so stark, then I am with you in that.

However, I wonder, and I really am not clear on this - I wonder - but I think my nose is on the scent - whether there are more dimensions to this picture which we might take into account. I am thinking specifically of arguing the case based on world-view considerations.

Allow me to lift a quote from your paper... "We cannot read poetry and expect the same kind of clear-cut truth statements we would receive from a scientific document.[31] The Bible is not written like a history book or a science book...."

Notice that I cut that last sentence short. That is important to my argument here. Now, back up the the part I quoted in entirety first. You are describing the differences between literary genres there. However, notice that the genres that you say the Bible is not are only found in the modern world context. History books, at least of the kind you and I are accustomed to, and science books, are very much products of modern thinking and mindsets. They are the cultural artifacts of a modernistic world-view.

Now suppose you are a first-century reader of the bible texts. Would these literary genres be an issue for you? No. Of course not. The Bible was not written by people who measured the world in the kind of precision we do today. The had a completely different world-view from modern western Bible readers.

Here's the thing though, both fundamentalists and liberals alike tend to take the kinds of positions they do over issues about how to fit matters of Christain faith -such as the authority of scripture or its inerrancy- into their modern world-view. The thing is that both camps take opposing directions in accommodating the modern world-view into their understanding of the Bible. The fundamentalists rationalize scripture into a mold where every jot and tittle must be true -the world be damned, and the liberals rationalize it so that parts of it are not -or they find ways to fudge it by spiritualizing difficult parts into metaphors etc.

It seems that there are only these two choices and one must decide or bury their heads in the sand. I tend to be a head burier, but I am not entirely stupid either. And I know that no matter how bad I may wish it could be easier, I will always carry a modern world-view with me in most respects. However, if you read the first say 3-4 chapters of New Testament and the People of God, by N. T. Wright, you will quickly find that perhaps we should call the bluff on the modern world-view instead of the scripture. The modern world-view is not as iron-clad as it once seemed. Modernity was bluffing. This is not, Wright would quickly say, an invitation to become post-modernists, but as McLaren and Campolo have suggested, we are at an historical apex - a rare place in history where we can see from the vantage point between eras. Wright would suggest that we go through the door of post-modernism, but not stop and make ourselves at home in the morass, rather take the sober and over-due judgement of modernity in hand and go the high road to claiming new ground.

There is a hermeneutic of suspicion in mondern world-view scholarship that has a louder bark than bite. And we should strive, though likely always imperfectly, to set aside our modern world-view of the Bible and see it through the lense of its own time and place as far as is possible. But additionally, Wright argues for a "hermeneutic of LOVE" where we love the scripture rather than trying to hold it apart from ourselves in some mythical objectivity.

This means that everything is relative. However not in an anything goes style of relativity. Rather in a we love the Bible and its message with our knowledge not unlike Adam knew Eve.

Now, I am getting out of my element to say all of this. It is a new way of thinking for me. However, I think my nose is on the scent here. I am personally pursuing more understanding in this direction. I think it brings new dimensions to the discussion, for those who have ears....

You seem to be getting a first rate education. I really like the inquisitive heart you display hear. Keep it honest and tender, and I think you will go on to discover rich things that you will find no other way. And it is risky, I know. You have to risk so much when you question things that some bedrock folks from your tradition have tried so hard for centuries to nail down and bury in cement. So I stress honest searching and tender - even gentle - handling of the things others have struggled so hard with, but I think the questions are good when handled with care.

Well, I will quit before my comment gets as long as your paper. Good work.

Many blessings....

WES ELLIS said...

Thanks Mike, for all the encouragement. I really needed it.

I agree with you. This issue is much more complex and someone should take the time to really think it all out. But to be honest, it doesn't matter much to me. I'm not the guy for the job. For my purposes the three views presented in my paper are enough to get an idea of what we're choosing between on the subbject. What you said about first century readers perspective is right on. I am definately more about "calling the bluff" on the modern way of thinking. I don't think we can really explain the Bible in the same terms. the Bible is much stranger than modern thinking would like to allow.

Thanks so much, once again I'm humbled by your intelect.

Rich(luthsem) said...

Great Paper Wes!

This paper is very thought-provoking and I used to be in the inerrancy/infallibility camp but now I
think its stuck in its modernist presuposition. Our unity is supposed to be in the risen Christ and not the Bible being literal word for word.
I can say the authoratative or inspired word of God with the infallible message of an infallible God. It's the overall message that is infallible which gives us the gift of the infallible saviour. If you must use that word(infallible.