It is fashionable these days to argue against inerrancy, even given the nuances and caveats I discussed in my last two articles. There are three reasons I hear most often from those who reject inerrancy. This week I’ll discuss and evaluate each of these arguments, and show why I think they fail.
Bad Argument #1: The Ad Hominem Fallacy
Some argue inerrancy can’t be true, because they know many people who believe the bible is without error who are not themselves good people. As one pastor recently put it in his argument against inerrancy:
I think of a man [who believes in inerrancy]…he is about the meanest S.O.B. I have met as a Christian, … he is uncharitable and unkind and I see no fruit of the Spirit in his life.
He goes on to expand this argument to include the Pharisees and Judaizers, the religious leaders of Jesus day. They, too, believed the Bible to be God’s Word, without error. However, as is clear by the way Jesus repeated rebuked them, they were not people truly following God. Again, they were not good people.
Often it is easier to see if there is a problem with the reasoning to a conclusion by putting it into syllogistic form. This argument can be formalized as follows:
Premise 1: If the Bible is inerrant, those who believe it to be so would be good people
Premise 2: Those who believe it to be so are not good people
Conclusion: Therefore, the Bible is not inerrant
The structure of this argument is known as “modus tollens”: P therefore Q, not Q, therefore not P. But the conclusion follows only if the premises are true. It is here this argument goes off track. The first premise is false, for a number of reasons. First, it is guilty of the ad hominem logical fallacy: attacking the person, not the position (I’ve written more about this fallacy here). Inerrancy is not dependent on how people who believe it behave. The Bible could still be inerrant even if everyone who believed it to be so lived lives contrary to its teaching. Simply stated, inerrancy stands or falls on logically sound and valid arguments, not arguments based on how its adherents apply or do not apply the Bible’s teachings.
Second, and related, some or even many who say they believe the Bible is inerrant actually do not believe this. They may have an erroneous view of inerrancy, failing to take into account the nuances and caveats discussed in my previous two articles. Or they may simply say they believe in inerrancy for religious reasons, while not understanding or actually believing this to be the case. The Pharisees and Judaizers were guilty of this. So just because someone says they believe in inerrancy does not necessarily mean they actually do.
Third, for all who understand the nuanced definition of inerrancy and seek to live according to biblical teaching, no one succeeds completely. Christians continue to grow in their obedience to Scripture, yet we fall short often. In fact, during the first weeks, months, and even years after coming to faith in Christ, one’s old habits and patterns may persist. It is not that God is not at work, just that there is much work to be done! So the “S.O.B.” the pastor referred to may simply be a work in progress (as we all are). This is no reason to reject inerrancy.
For these three reasons this is not a good argument against inerrancy.
Bad Argument #2: Ignoring Progressive Revelation
A second erroneous argument against inerrancy is that some passages and even sections of the Bible are clearly not true. Everyone understands this, and so chooses to apply some passages and disregards others. For instance, in Leviticus 19:19 we read, “…Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.” In Mark 12:31 we read, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” No one who says they believe in inerrancy follow both these commands, but chooses to disregard the first and follow the second. So it is clear that even those who claim to believe in inerrancy understand that not all passages are equally inspired and inerrant.
The problem with this second argument against inerrancy is it fails to take into account what is known as progressive revelation. If you sit down and read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, you will notice that as the story progresses (through the four “chapters” of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration), there are different themes or emphases that emerge.
For instance, in the Old Testament, after the Fall, all people looked forward to God’s redemption, as prophets said would one day come through his Messiah. Yet until that day they lived under “the Law” with it’s many demands, such as not wearing blended fabrics. The Law was given for the needs of the time, as God’s people looked forward to God’s full redemption. As Paul summarizes in Galatians 3:24, “So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith.”
Therefore, to cite Old Testament commands we no longer follow beside New Testament commands we do follow and say inerrantists “pick and choose” is based on misunderstanding, or worse deliberately ignoring the principle of progressive revelation. It is an example of the logical fallacy known as the “Straw Man” fallacy: describing a position in a poor or inaccurate way, and then easily showing it is false. (I’ll write more about the Straw Man fallacy in my next series.)
Progressive revelation also explains why the attributes of God in the forefront in the Old Testament period are those of judgment, and in the New Testament those of grace. The Old Testament describes how God relates to his rebellious people prior to the Messiah coming and taking away the sins of the world on the cross. The New Testament then describes how God is able to relate to us once Christ’s death was offered in substitute for our own.
Those who argue against inerrancy often fail to take into account progressive revelation, and therefore offer this second inadequate argument against inerrancy.
Bad Argument #3: “It’s A Western Thing”
A third, very popular objection to inerrancy is that it is a Western or Enlightenment idea we should reject. There are many forms of this argument, but in general it holds that inerrancy is a modern notion driven by a mechanistic, modern, and rationalistic approach to Scripture, foreign to the Bible itself. Therefore inerrancy should be rejected.
Some may use the term or concept of inerrancy in this way. I am not. Hopefully the definitions and caveats in my first two articles of this series make this clear. Furthermore, my argument in favor of inerrancy in the articles to follow show Jesus himself—a non-Westerner, non-modernist, non-Enlightenment Rationalist, and God incarnate—took the Bible to be inerrant. Therefore the idea is not the result of Western or Modernist thinking.
Furthermore, even if this were my or other’s motivation to believe the Bible is inerrant, to say therefore inerrancy is false is to commit the Genetic Fallacy (I’ve discussed this logical fallacy here). In brief, even if the motivation to understand Scripture as inerrant is driven by Western, Enlightenment, or Rationalistic motivations, the view may still be true regardless of these motivations. To argue otherwise is to confuse the origin of a belief with its validity. The view may still be true, even if held for wrong reasons.
Having looked at common arguments against inerrancy and found none adequate, the question remains whether there are any good arguments in support of inerrancy. I believe there is at least one. But there are also a number of bad arguments in support of inerrancy. I’ll discuss these next week.
Until then, grace and peace.
For further reading I suggest Questioning the Bible: 11 Major Challenges to the Bible’s Authority by Jonathan Morrow, Inerrancy, edited by Norman Geisler, and Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, edited by J. Merrick and Stephen M. Garrett (series editor Stanley N. Gundry).