What do people mean by the inerrancy of the Bible?

Introduction

In the first of this three-part series on inerrancy we looked at why some people insist on this.
Now we will look at what they mean by it.

Here are some possibilities to consider:

  1. Everything written in the Bible you read, or that is sitting on your shelf, or electronically in your phone or computer, is absolutely true.
  2. Everything in the best translations in English is true.
  3. Everything in the original texts written by prophets and apostles etc is true
  4. All the important statements are true – in the original texts.

I think many people imagine that the first statement is correct; that what they can read about Biblical history, doctrine, poetry etc is completely true because the Bible is inspired and inerrant.

But this misses out two important points:

  1. What you can read is only a translation, and translations vary even within the set of English translations. Translations into other languages will often read differently again.
  2. What you read has to be explained to be understood, and different people will explain passages in different ways.

So there is no sense in which the Bible you read in your own language is completely and absolutely true.

The second idea is easily dismissed, because, although it addresses part of the problem mentioned above, it raises another one: who determines which are the best translations – or perhaps which single translation is the best. It’s us – or our leaders – and both they and we are fallible. Indeed, the very fact that we have so many translations suggests that the older ones were incorrect or insufficient in some way.

The third idea looks better, as we are getting back to the source materials. However, there are two problems here, too:

  1. We don’t have the original manuscripts – though we do have extremely reliable copies
  2. We can’t read the original manuscripts because they are written in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic.
    Granted, some people have studied these languages, but then we have to rely on their translations, which, as we have seen above, can vary.

Lastly, we have the fourth idea that perhaps not everything is true, but the important things are – but only in the original texts (see above). This begs the question of what is important and some work has been done on defining inerrancy in these terms.

I have quoted below from three organisations that have worked on this. The first two come roughly under the fourth idea above, while the third conforms to idea three.

1. The Lausanne Covenant

According to its website, “The Lausanne Covenant is widely regarded as one of the most significant documents in modern church history. Emerging from the First Lausanne Congress in 1974, with John Stott as its Chief Architect, it served as a great rallying call to the evangelical Church around the world. It defined what it means to be evangelical, and challenged Christians to work together to make Jesus Christ known throughout the world. It is a covenant with one another, and a covenant with God himself.”

Its second section deals with the Bible. Here it is.

We affirm the divine inspiration, truthfulness and authority of both Old and New Testament Scriptures in their entirety as the only written word of God, without error in all that it affirms, and the only infallible rule of faith and practice. We also affirm the power of God’s word to accomplish his purpose of salvation. The message of the Bible is addressed to all men and women. For God’s revelation in Christ and in Scripture is unchangeable. Through it the Holy Spirit still speaks today. He illumines the minds of God’s people in every culture to perceive its truth freshly through their own eyes and thus discloses to the whole Church ever more of the many-colored wisdom of God.

(2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:21; John 10:35; Isaiah 55:11; 1 Corinthians 1:21; Romans 1:16, Matthew 5:17,18; Jude 3; Ephesians 1:17,18; 3:10,18)

2. The Gospel Coalition

The Gospel Coalition, founded by D. A. Carson and Timothy Keller, states “We are a fellowship of evangelical churches in the Reformed tradition deeply committed to renewing our faith in the gospel of Christ and to reforming our ministry practices to conform fully to the Scriptures.”

Here is its statement on the Bible.

God has graciously disclosed his existence and power in the created order, and has supremely revealed himself to fallen human beings in the person of his Son, the incarnate Word. Moreover, this God is a speaking God who by his Spirit has graciously disclosed himself in human words: we believe that God has inspired the words preserved in the Scriptures, the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments, which are both record and means of his saving work in the world. These writings alone constitute the verbally inspired Word of God, which is utterly authoritative and without error in the original writings, complete in its revelation of his will for salvation, sufficient for all that God requires us to believe and do, and final in its authority over every domain of knowledge to which it speaks. We confess that both our finitude and our sinfulness preclude the possibility of knowing God’s truth exhaustively, but we affirm that, enlightened by the Spirit of God, we can know God’s revealed truth truly. The Bible is to be believed, as God’s instruction, in all that it teaches; obeyed, as God’s command, in all that it requires; and trusted, as God’s pledge, in all that it promises. As God’s people hear, believe, and do the Word, they are equipped as disciples of Christ and witnesses to the gospel.

3. The International Church Council Project

“The International Church Council Project is a Christian ministry to encourage and assist the Body of Christ in returning to her historic roots in a number of critical areas of doctrine. ICCP also addresses several areas that are new battle lines, though in reality, none of the battle lines are new. The enemies have simply dressed themselves in new clothing (Topic 24–Environmentalism is an example of old paganism dressed in modern clothing).”

Of my three possibilities, this falls under number three.

We’ll come to the inerrancy of the Bible in a minute, but first (since they mention it at the beginning) let’s quickly look at just one of the things they say about environmentalism:

Article 7

We affirm that the earth and all its physical and biological systems are the effects of God’s omniscient design, omnipotent creation and faithful sustaining and that when God completed His creative work it was “very good” (Genesis 1:31).

We deny that an infinitely wise Designer, infinitely powerful Creator and perfectly faithful Sustainer of the earth would have made it susceptible to catastrophic degradation from proportionally small causes and consequently we deny that wise environmental stewardship readily embraces claims of catastrophe stemming from such causes.

The affirmation is fine, but the denial is not. After all is not the whole problem of sin with catastrophic consequences the result of a very small cause: eating from the one tree that was forbidden? Nor, I would suggest, is climate change the result of “proportionally small causes”. This article denies what is so clearly taking place on the basis of a preconceived theology which has no basis.

Anyway – enough of that, but it does make me sceptical of anything else they have to say, and they say a lot!

Here is their short statement, drawn from the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy; if you go to the page you will find that it is followed by 19 affirmations and denials.

God, who is Himself Truth and speaks truth only, has inspired Holy Scripture in order thereby to reveal Himself to lost mankind through Jesus Christ as Creator and Lord, Redeemer and Judge. Holy Scripture is God’s witness to Himself.

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.

The Holy Spirit, Scripture’s divine Author, both authenticates it to us by His inward witness and opens our minds to understand its meaning.

Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives.

The authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded, or made relative to a view of truth contrary to the Bible’s own; and such lapses bring serious loss to both the individual and the Church.

One of the 19 articles – like the summary above – goes a lot further than the assertions of the other two organisations.

Article XII

We affirm that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from falsehood, fraud, error, or deceit.

We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or Redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on Creation and the Flood.

They seem to be saying that the Bible is also a science textbook.

Conclusions

So now you know what inerrancy has been defined to mean.

But what may we conclude from all this?

Firstly, eminent theologians are not in agreement as to how much of the Bible they believe to be inerrant. Is it all of the original text, or is it simply “without error in all that it affirms” – whatever that might mean?

Secondly, since we cannot read the original manuscripts, which all three statements above say are the inerrant Bible, what use is such an idea to us? We are reliant on translation (subject to error) and interpretation by the fallible men and women who teach us.

So, is inerrancy a useful and credible belief?

This is the topic of my final post, coming shortly!

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