What is the Bible? Is it God’s revelation of His mind, without error? Does it contain God’s revelation, mixed with errors due to its human authors? Is it the musings of God’s people as they try to understand their experience of God within their cultural contexts? Is it a book written by human authors, through which God graciously chooses to meet us as we read it? These (and more) answers have been given to this critically important question.
Each of these answers are offered by pastors and others with good, pure, and right motives. They want to help others understand the pages of Scripture. They want to help others relate what they read to their contemporary lives. They want to connect the biblical text to the important issues in our culture.
However, correct motives do not entail correct conclusions. Those with these same motivations come to different and contradictory conclusions about the Bible. Logic tells us contradictory conclusions cannot all be correct. Ultimately all views break down into two fundamental answers: either the Bible contains errors or it does not. If the Bible contains errors, then views maintaining it does not are necessarily false. On the other hand, if the Bible does not contain errors, then all views allowing for error in some way are simply wrong. So the ultimate question is which of these two views are correct?
In this series I want to outline and defend the answer I believe is correct—not just the position I happen to like, but rather the position I believe is best supported by the evidence. It is the view that the Bible is God’s revelation, and correctly interpreted proves to reveal God's thoughts and workings without error. Yet this view (often referred to as “inerrancy” or "without error") is much debated these days. Some of the debate is over what the word means, and some is over what the concept entails. There are many poor definitions and arguments for inerrancy. In this series I’ll look at a number of these, and offer what I believe is the proper definition and a persuasive argument in support.
I believe this position is not only the logical conclusion to draw from the evidence, but is essential to promote human flourishing and the common good in our contemporary world. One example came up in my last series on the morality of abortion. I offered an argument that God communicates through Scripture that life begins at conception. If this is God’s view of the matter, communicated without error in his Word, then we have good reason to believe this is true, even if the view is uncomfortable or at odds with the current winds of culture. The same is true for many other issues such as views of sexuality and human flourishing in general, the conditions for our salvation, and the hope of the believer.
If the Bible is without error, assuming the caveats below, we can know God’s mind on these and so many other matters. If the Bible contain errors, we cannot be certain of God’s view on any of these issues. This may be a relief if we have an opinion that differs from what God seems to communicate in the pages of Scripture. It allows us to follow current cultural fads. It allows us, in the words of the book of Judges, to “do whatever seems right in our own eyes” (e.g. Judges 17:6). It allows pastors to avoid or change what is taught on the cultural issues of the day in order not to “offend,” but rather to be accepted, honored, and praised by the masses demanding new ideas be embraced. In fact, Timothy warns this will happen: “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” (2 Timothy 4:3)
However, only by living according to what is True will we flourish, will the common good be promoted, and will God receive honor. If God communicated Truth through his Word, and did so successfully so that it is without error and completely trustworthy, we should want to know this to be the case. Only then can we have assurance that we understand the mind of God and are living in accordance with His will. Inerrancy is important for us to have this assurance.
Defining My Terms
Much rests on what I mean by “inerrancy.” The word is simply enough—not errant, meaning not containing error. In the words of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, “it is true and reliable in all the matters it addresses” (Article XI) and “free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit” (Article XII).
This definition is based on three assumptions. First, inerrancy assumes God exists and is perfect in every way. This includes intellectual perfections, such as knowing all things, unable to be deceived and in no way lacking knowledge or understanding. In theological language, he is omniscient. God’s perfection also includes moral perfections such as honesty. In other words, God does not ever lie. Furthermore, he is not even able to lie. His nature is such that it is impossible for him to lie, mislead, deceive, or communicate what is false.
The second assumption implicit in the term “inerrancy” is that God has chosen to reveal some of his knowledge to us, so that we can know the truth he knows. Some of this Revelation is through General Revelation: what we can know from observing the creation around us. More relevant to the discussion of inerrancy is the second means of revelation: Special Revelation: truth he communicates through the written Word (Scripture), along with truth he communicates through the Living Word, Jesus Christ (as recorded in the written Word).
The third assumption is that God can do anything logically possible (above I noted God cannot lie, so I say here "anything logically possible"-- anything that can be done). In other words, God is omnipotent. It is logically possible for God to ensure his thoughts and actions are communicated without error. Therefore God, in his omnipotence, has the power to communicate truth without error, even through human authors.
From these assumptions we can further define inerrancy: God desired to communicate truth to us, he choose to do so through a written Word (as one of his three modes of Revelation), and he has the power to ensure his Will is accomplished. The result is a Book inspired by God ("God-breathed" as 2 Timothy 3:16 puts it), and thus without error.
Being more precise, I am referring to what is termed “verbal-plenary" inspiration of the Bible by God. I have already addressed the “plenary” aspect of this concept—all of Scripture is inspired by God. It is not the case that some passages, sections, books or sets of books in the Bible are inspired, and others are not. No, each of the 39 Old Testament and 27 New Testament Books, which comprise the Bible, are inspired by God and therefore without error (inerrant).
“Verbal” refers to the very words being inspired by God and thus without error, not just the concepts communicated in these texts. This is why often, in sermons and theological discussions, a point will be made that one Hebrew or Greek word was used, and not another. The specific word used in the sentence is believed to be important and to carry divinely-inspired meaning.
For instance, in John 1:1 we read, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” We might wonder how a word can be with God, and even God. Isn’t God a person, not a word? This confusion is cleared up as we understand the meaning of the Greek word translated “Word.”--“logos.” This word was pregnant with meaning for both Jewish and Gentile readers. To Greeks it meant the ultimate reality or Truth that stands under all else and gives life and meaning to everything. Above all this was what they were seeking. God is communicating that what the Greeks were seeking was actually Jesus, the Word Incarnate. To Jews it signaled God’s activity throughout the “Old” Testament (their Scriptures). From Genesis on God speaks, and His Word had power and authority. It is this Word that has now taken on flesh as Jesus of Nazareth. “Logos” was the precise word that God wanted to use in order to communicate His Truth in this passage.
This is true of all other words in Scripture. They matter. Jesus himself often makes an argument that turns on a word when questioned. He is quick to cite the specific words of Scripture, not simply the general idea communicated by a passage (see, for example, Matthew 22:23-33).
Finally, it is important to remember that verbal inspiration does not imply there is no room for literary forms such as hyperbole, metaphors, or even colloquial expressions of the day. In some cases these are just the words God desired to use in order to best communicate His Truth.
We now have a working definition of inerrancy. Yet there is much more to be said. Next week I’ll add four critically important caveats to clarify what I do and do not mean by the inerrancy of Scripture. It these nuances are missed it is easy to promoted a flawed view of inerrancy, or reject inerrancy altogether.
Until then, grace and peace.
For further reading I suggest Inerrancy, edited by Norman Geisler, and Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, edited by J. Merrick and Stephen M. Garrett (series editor Stanley N. Gundry). In the spirit of full disclosure, Steve Garrett is a colleague of mine. But I’d like his book even if he wasn’t!