Inerrancy: A “Classic” Model

Inerrancy: A “Classic” Model August 4, 2014

The word “inerrancy,” like the word evangelical, beggars clear and compelling definitions and articulations. Many of inerrancy’s proponents don’t believe simpler words — like truth, truthful, trustworthy — adequately express what is to be believed about the Bible. So there is an Inerrancy Debate, and it is now in an official form: Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy. The editors are J. Merrick and S.M. Garrett, and the contributors, with responses to each of the other essayists, are R. Albert Mohler, Jr., Peter Enns, Michael F. Bird, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and John R. Franke. Believe me, this is one of the more volatile issues among evangelicals (the term “inerrancy” tends not to be used except by evangelicals, and then not by all). I am not a fan of these Counterpoint books since, in general, the responses go down hill fast. I do value sketching various views of a topic, including inerrancy. But this sketch is clearly an in-house-evangelical affair with not a look at Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans or others.

Mohler kicks the volume off, and after reading him carefully I have come to this conclusion: Mohler creates an argument the way Kris and I do crosswords — we work in this corner and then that corner, and then on this line and then on that line. We don’t finish up one section before we move on to another. The problem is that arguments are not crosswords. Mohler’s essay, in other words, is a tangled mess with barely any order — here one thing, there another, with an application/polemical point now and then later another one, with some Bible and then no Bible. One can discern what he believes well enough, but for a representative of the “classic” view (and he means Warfield through the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy) this is at best a hodgepodge of claims. There are much better studies, including those by B.B. Warfield, E.J. Young, J.I. Packer, and Paul Feinberg’s well-framed essay in a book called Inerrancy (ed. N. Geisler).

I was a college student when the inerrancy debate became big at the hand of Harold Lindsell’s famous The Battle for the Bible. I devoured the book, stood amazed at some of his claims, but knew there was much to study in this topic — so I read B.B. Warfield and E.J. Young cover to cover, carefully watching how they worked. They were articulate, careful, and mostly convincing. But not all have achieved their level of patient exposition of the Bible’s understanding of itself.

He contends inerrancy is supported by the Bible’s own claims, by the course of theological history, and for pastoral reasons.

These are representative statements by Mohler:

“An affirmation of the divine inspiration and authority of the Bible has stood at the center of the evangelical faith as long as there have been Christians known as evangelicals” (29). He’s more or less right: I don’t think it is all that helpful to call the Reformers “evangelicals” (as we know them today), but evangelicalism (properly boundaried) has believed in inspiration and authority.

One of his best lines is “When the Bible speaks, God speaks” (29).  He accepts ETS’s older statement — “The Bible alone, the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs” (29). He approves of Carl Henry’s line that “inerrancy should be seen as a requirement of evangelical consistency rather than as a test of evangelical integrity” (29), though I’m not sure what this means. He knows many aren’t in agreement, including Roger Olson.

He believes in a slippery slope mentality: give up inerrancy and things fall apart theologically, morally, epistemologically, and ecclesially. Giving it up leads to “hermeneutical nihilism” and “metaphysical antirealism” (31).

His history of this discussion focuses on the 20th Century — from Warfield to Lindsell to ETS and CSBI (1978). God is perfect; his words therefore are perfect; Scripture is inspired by God and therefore inerrant; the Spirit attended the authors and the text and speaks to us today in the inward witness; the Bible is plenarily inspired; authority follows from this and without this the authority is shaken.

He then makes his case: the Bible, history and pastoral ministry.

His case for the Bible starts off poorly for me. He quotes 2 Peter 1:21, which in the NIV 2011 reads: “For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” Mohler’s observations: “Peter’s point is that the Scripture is to be trusted at every point, and he defines its inspiration as being directly from God, through the agency of human authors, by means of the direct work of the Holy Spirit” (37). Well, not exactly: Does “prophecy” mean “Scripture… at every point”? I doubt it. He speaks of the “original text” but is that one of Peter’s categories? Anyway, the point is that Mohler colonizes 2 Peter 1:21 into his existing theory of inerrancy and explains Peter through his theory. Fortunately, his section on the Bible improves and his stuff here on Paul is done well. Yes, I agree: Paul and the NT authors, including Jesus, were Jewish and had a “high” view of Scripture and its truthfulness and God’s trustworthiness in the Word. This does not solve the hermeneutical problems but it does give us a good framing of the early Christian view.

On the faith of the church, Yes, the church has always believed the Bible is true, trustworthy, and authoritative. To import the word “inerrancy,” which means CSBI or ETS for Mohler, is simply a bad case of anachronism run amok. It is not good history to impose later categories on the church fathers and medieval theologians or even the Reformers. Plus, they always operated with a strong sense of “tradition” alongside the Bible.

The authors are to use test cases: Joshua 6, the tension of Acts 9:7 and 22:9, as well as Deut 20:16-17 and Matthew 5:43-48. On Joshua 6, Jericho, archaeology and the Bible: he believes in inerrancy, therefore there is no problem; on Acts 9 and 22, he believes in inerrancy therefore there is no problem; and the same on Deut 20 and Matt 5.

This is a great example of a priori logic, of assumptions, and of deductive logic but I’m glad there are other essays in this volume.

Three more critical observations: Mohler makes claims about the history of theology without documentation. Why not trot out statements from Augustine to the modern day? Why not frame what they believed in their terms and let the chips fall where they may? Instead, he makes summary statements about history, and (as we will see) his summary statements are not accurate. Both Bird and Vanhoozer take Mohler to task for his claims about history. The second observation is that here is how Mohler’s logic works: I believe in inerrancy, therefore the Bible is not wrong. Over and over he says, Since I believe in inerrancy this theory about a passage can’t be right. This is a priori logic, if not fideism, and it is being used for a doctrine that was formed, if my reading of the history is right, on the basis of inductive logic. Third, for someone who affirms inerrancy of the Bible there is precious little emphasis in this study on the Bible itself. He has one short section (3 pages) and in the challenging portions he spends far too little time patiently examining what the Bible actually says. A “biblical” inerrancy is one founded on patient study of what the Bible says.

It is because of understandings of inerrancy like this of Mohler that many of us don’t want to use the term “inerrancy.” What does that mean? In the hands of Mohler, the word “inerrancy” is boundary-drawing politics and polemics. The Bible’s way of talking about the Bible is “Word” and a word is spoken by a Person, who is engaged in a covenant relationship of love, and the proper response to the Word from God is to listen because, as covenant people, we want to know what God says and do what he wants. I have sketched this in the “Boring Chapter” in The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible.

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  • Darryl Stringer

    Scot: In your view, what is the difference between the ‘truthfulness of Scripture’, and ‘the inerrancy of Scripture’?

    Thank you in advance. 🙂

  • scotmcknight

    Two powerfully different terms and evocations. The former says God delivered the goods in speaking to us the truth; the second that it is not wrong. A negation of a negative cannot be anything other than an abstraction.

  • I am curious why this debate is coming to the fore again? The real question that needs to be asked and answered in our times is that of authority. Are the Scriptures authoritative? At least that’s the single biggest issue I run into with people far from Jesus and even those close to Jesus in my life.

  • Mike Mercer

    Scot, how much does the Bible actually talk about “the Bible”? This is a question I rarely hear discussed. There may have been certain writings that were accepted as having a measure of authority, but there was no “Bible” until after all these texts were written! How can we speak of the inerrancy of the “Bible” and “the Bible’s claims about itself” without recognizing that when texts speak of “God’s word,” etc., they are not speaking directly about the book we are holding in our hands?

  • scotmcknight

    Except in those contexts the word “authoritative” is not the best term. Agree?

  • scotmcknight

    Well, by the time Psalm 119 was written I think we can assume it was referring to bundles and bundles of texts now in our OT. 1 Tim 3 surely is referring to the whole OT, and 2 Peter 1 is very close. On top of this is the Jewish context of assuming the divine origins of the entire Tanakh, and if the earliest Jewish Christians expanded that to include Jesus and the apostles we are not too far from what we call the NT. I would contend, Mike, that the “disposition” toward these texts as sacred propels the discussion at the historical level.

  • Mike Mercer

    Yes, Scot I agree. But what you and I are saying is very different than the scientific precision people want to claim for a canon of 66 books.

  • PCAGadfly

    If I understand Mohler correctly, inerrancy affirms that the original autographs, the ones we don’t have, were without error; therefore, inerrancy is a doctrine about something that no longer exists. I’ve never understood how one transfers this affirmation to the extant text. By its own terms, inerrancy says nothing about the extant text.

  • In some ways yes. What might be a better term?

  • Mike Mercer

    “Original autographs” is also an extremely problematic if not impossible formulation. What were the “original autographs” of orally transmitted stories? What place does the editing and arranging of texts during and after the exile have when considering “original writings”? This is a theoretical canard and should have no place in a legitimate position.

  • Guest

    I just finished this book and am blogging about it as well. It seems to me that one of the primary problems is that no one has really defined “error” very well. Not in CSBI and not in this book’s debate. The reason “inerrancy” is being added instead of remaining satisfied with more traditional terms like “truthfulness” and “infallibility” is because inerrantists were concerned that liberal Protestants and neo-orthodox folks like Barth were saying the Bible has “errors.” These “errors” seem to especially concern issues around history and science (did certain historical events happen? did God create the earth and human beings? is the Bible really divinely inspired if there are discrepancies?) But this aspect is not fleshed out very well. So, at times I am left wondering *what* exactly inerrancy is defending in more concrete terms. This is especially true when CSBI makes exceptions to what constitutes an error such as “observational descriptions of nature” (I am not sure what they mean by this since elsewhere inerrantists say that any observations of nature that the biblical authors made were not in error even if they are only limited to the scientific knowledge they had).

    It seems like what CSBI is trying to defend is that the exodus really happened. The sea was actually parted, the conquest was real etc. And they are trying to defend against an evolutionary reading of the Bible. They are also pushing a certain grammatical-historical interpretation. There are “soft” inerrantists that have sprouted up, but I wonder if in the process there is an attempt to fix something through new interpretations of CSBI rather than giving CSBI a revision. The preface to CSBI suggests openness to revision. That of course, has not been the case. But I find efforts like Vanhoozer’s to try to force inerrancy to fit when maybe CSBI would be better off being revised.

    Scot, would you sign the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy? Why or why not?

  • Mike Mercer

    Can’t continue, but thanks for bringing this up. I guess the big point I would want to make is that those who hold to “inerrancy” as Mohler does have to ignore all kinds of historical realities — those we know and those we don’t — about how the Bible was actually composed, edited, arranged, and recognized as a “book” of sacred writings.

  • scotmcknight

    Jesus and his truth claims.

  • Fair enough, and yet the question remains. Why inerrancy now? It’s not the most important question that needs to be answered… These issues surrounding Jesus and his truth claims are much more important. The people I engage with are wrestling with why they should listen to what Jesus has to say in the Bible. While I can explain that the Scriptures are authentic and even represent what was originally written by the authors, it doesn’t answer their deeper question, “Why should I listen? What makes Jesus different than any other religious leader from antiquity?”

    Questions of inerrancy are tired and useful for selling books within the Christian world. We need to get to work on really working out the reasons why someone ought to listen to them. This probably connects to Darryl’s question below about truthfulness vs inerrancy.

  • scotmcknight

    One never knows… but there have been some studies on the Bible from evangelicals that have disturbed the conservative wing of this doctrine. Namely, Pete Enns and Kent Sparks, probably also Seibert’s book on the Old Testament God.

  • Thanks for the interaction Scot, that makes sense.

  • attytjj466

    Yes, the term inerrancy itself is not really very helpful and does not resolve much. A good club, but not a useful beacon. The issues often are matters of history and science, and it always comes down to the nitty gritty details, what constitutes an error and what constitutes something else, but not an error per se. This gets into interpretation, hermeneutics, definitions, genre, figures of speech, cultural usages and ways of thinking and cultural expession. One could affirm inerrancy, and yet have very different ways of approaching and understanding a passage like Genesis 1-11, than Mohler. As long as that is understood and accepted, then OK, no harm done by using the term. But if it is used to mean only one narrow way of understanding error as it relates to matters of history and science, then the term does more harm than good.

  • danaames

    Scot, how would you describe “the truth claims of Jesus”?


  • Darryl Stringer

    Thanks Scot. So, historically speaking, if certain events described in Scripture didn’t occur (such as the conquest, or Jonah in the whale), how are they said to be truthful, but an historical error?

    I’m trying to work out what to say to my evangelical friends when they hit me with this one.

  • danaames

    Scot, see my previous comment/question.


  • Luke Dubbelman

    Great review of the 1st view…It would be great to hear your thoughts on some of the other views. My personal favorites were bird and vanhoozer…though Enns was, as always, thought provoking.

  • scotmcknight

    Hang on … 2 posts per week about this book.

  • scotmcknight

    What Jesus said is true.

  • danaames

    Okay… what do you mean by “true”?

    It seems that “What Jesus said is true” is simply another way to say “authoritative” and really doesn’t move away from that concept. I’m not sure that addresses Daniel’s concern. It’s not something I can even start with with my son who claims to be an atheist.

    I see the same sorts of problems with Mohler’s take on things as you do. I think your view is a large step up, but there’s still a problem for me with seeing scripture as the Word of God.
    You wrote, “The Bible’s way of talking about the Bible is “Word” and a word is spoken by a Person, who is engaged in a covenant relationship of love..” Even before I became interested in EO, I noticed that when in the NT
    the words “Word of God” appear, they are 95% of the time referring to
    Jesus, not the sacred writings, and not even to the words Jesus spoke.

    And frankly, I’ve come to the place where I see the whole covenant thing as something that comes in between me and Christ and actually impedes the goal Jesus prayed for, that we would be in him as he is in the father – “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” You and Wright have done a valuable service in bringing the C1 Jewish expectations about covenant to the forefront in understanding the NT, and what it would have “looked like” to those Jews to see the covenant fulfilled. And… if the concept of “covenant” had remained central, it would have shown up in the next group of writings, the Apostolic Fathers. I can’t find it there. What is there, though, is the understanding of being in union with Christ – directly by the Holy Spirit, not through the intermediary of a covenant. And I’ve never found the idea of “covenant” in the Cappadocians either. To me, using “covenant” to describe how we are in relationship to God actually makes that relationship less Personal, less perichoretic, if you will.

    It is a union of love, not a contractual covenant, that upholds the desire to “know what God says and do what he wants.” I see the proper response to the Word of God, Jesus Christ, as worshiping him and turning our innermost being to him in deepest gratitude, in order to receive the gift of life he offers. Someone who will never be able to understand multiple interpretations of scripture and/or the finer points of theology can do that.

    I hope I’m being clear. I love the scriptures and very much want to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them… I just got tired of the book and its often quite disjointed, non-organic, non-narratival, anachronistic and fragmented interpretations getting in between me and Jesus – in effect, being regarded as greater than God Himself.


  • Pete E.

    Darryl, if I may jump in, your question is the money question. This is one of the points I made somewhere in my responses in the Zondervan volume (to Vanhoozer, I think?). Can evangelicals have a doctrine of scripture that allows for how ancients wrote about the past, which includes myth, legend, story, etc. That is the wide gap, and many peering over the cliff inch back away from it.

    Arguments about inerrancy that don’t address these sorts of questions are not addressing the very issues that are making evangelicals suspicious about the explanatory power of inerrancy to begin with, which is my main disappointment in the other essays in that volume.

    Anyway, this is Scot’s blog so I will bow out. My 2 cents.

  • scotmcknight

    What is “covenant”? It is God’s choice to form relationship in the mode of presence with his people. “Covenant” is no doubt Jewish language and the Cappadocians were using later Greek philosophical language, so they don’t gravitate to covenant. But union with Christ and perichoresis are covenant language.

  • danaames

    I see “covenant” as a legal term involving binding obligations; God’s choice to form relationship in the mode of presence with his people is an aspect of his love and freedom. Love is “higher” than legalities, and binding just doesn’t apply. (Against love, there is no law…) Also, the Cappadocians were brilliant guys, among the most educated of their day. If they thought the term “covenant” would have been helpful for what they were explaining, the could have used it. They didn’t.

    So, what do you mean by “what Jesus said is true”? Not trying to be argumentative, but if you’re going to try to get away from the idea of “authoritative” I think you’re going to have to try another tack.


  • dave wainscott

    Helpful! thanks for writing this.

    One minor correction. Where you said 2 Peter 1:21 was this in the NIV 2011:
    “For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit”,,

    it’s actually this (inclusive language):
    ” For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”

  • Andrew Dowling

    Good point. Many churches going into the 10th century in the East still didn’t recognize Revelation as part of the canon . . and that is a book that many theologies basically rest on!