Inspiration? Yes! – Inerrancy? (RJS)

Inspiration? Yes! – Inerrancy? (RJS) August 19, 2014

Barbedwire from WikipediaThe post last Thursday (Pre-adamism and Hermeneutics) focused on the methods of biblical interpretation brought to bear in considerations of Adam and pre-adamic populations, particularly on the role concordism played and the effect of the harmonizing strategies on interpretation. The discussion of concordism and harmonizing strategies developed to keep faith with both science and scripture leads quite naturally into a broader discussion of biblical inspiration, inerrancy and the authority of scripture as the Word of God. After all, the purpose of a concordist approach is to preserve the inerrancy and thus authority of the text.

What does inerrancy have to do with inspiration and/or authority? A commenter on one of Scot’s posts on  Five Views of Biblical Inerrancy brought up Charles Ryrie’s statement on biblical inspiration (the commenter found it in a Study Bible, but I also find it on p. 76 of Basic Theology):

Formerly all that was necessary to affirm one’s belief in full inspiration was the statement, “I believe in the inspiration of the Bible.” But when some did not extend inspiration to the words of the text it became necessary to say, “I believe in the verbal inspiration of the Bible.” To counter the teaching that not all parts of the Bible were inspired, one had to say, “I believe in the verbal, plenary inspiration of the Bible.” Then because some did not want to ascribe total accuracy to the Bible, it was necessary to say, “I believe in the verbal, plenary, infallible, inerrant inspiration of the Bible.” But then “infallible” and “inerrant” began to be limited to matters of faith only rather than also embracing all that the Bible records (including historical facts, genealogies, accounts of Creation, etc.), so it became necessary to add the concept of “unlimited inerrancy.” Each addition to the basic statement arose because of an erroneous teaching. (emphasis added)

Ryrie continues (also p. 76) …

The doctrine of inspiration is not something theologians have to force on the Bible. Rather it is a teaching of the Bible itself, a conclusion derived from the data contained in it.

I agree with Ryrie – inspiration is not something theologians have to force on the Bible and I believe in the inspiration of the Bible. But most of the subsequent refinements (responses to what Ryrie considered erroneous teachings), that define exactly what is meant to some people by “inspiration” culminating in “unlimited inerrancy,” do have to be forced on the text. These are not really something the Bible teaches of itself as a whole or conclusions that can be derived from the data contained in it. In fact they lead to a great deal of cognitive dissonance as many come to fear (or realize) that the text does not live up to the pronouncements.

Concern with inerrancy changes our focus. There is another consequence as well. David Livingstone pointed out that the harmonizing strategies used to achieve concord between science and the Bible transform our understanding of the message of scripture. This isn’t just true for questions of science. Harmonizing strategies within scripture also tend to fall into the same trap … strategies reconciling the details of the differing accounts of creation in Genesis 1 and 2 and even Job; the histories in Samuel, Kings and Chronicles; the details in the Gospels (there are differences both between John and the synoptic gospels and between incidents within the synoptic gospels – as with the fig tree for example: Wither the Fig Tree, Whither the Wandering Saints); Paul’s account of his post Damascus journey with the account given in Acts; and this isn’t a complete list. The harmonizing strategies used transform the notions they seek to unite. At the very least harmonizing strategies draw attention away from the core message of passages they seek to defend.

The WakeInerrancy and all the ensuing imperatives, fine-tuned definitions, and fights, with bodies thrown off the boat, churned up in the wake, seems a largely irrelevant and sometimes destructive concept. We need to take scripture seriously – but taking scripture seriously means reading it (all of it) and living it. Neither rigid literalism nor a sifting of error from truth are appropriate.

The alternatives. When it comes to scripture the alternative to inerrant isn’t errant. I do not believe the bible is errant. But “inerrant” (at least inerrant as it has come to be defined in evangelical Christianity) is simply not a useful term to describe what scripture actually is or what it testifies about itself. We have to take the bible as we have it, with poetry, story, proverbs, history, prophecy, apocalyptic imagery, satire, ancient Near Eastern myth, anachronisms, … with all of the trappings. Here we have a faithful transmission of God’s work in his world, his law, his character and more, recorded in forms shaped by experience and context of the people involved, including authors and editors. It is foolishness (the wisdom of the world) to force it into a mold (unlimited inerrancy) of our own making.

Perhaps the best alternative to inerrant is quite simply to return to Ryrie’s first statement without all the detailed baggage he wishes to encumber upon it – I believe in the inspiration of the Bible. And we can go a step further with Paul. Paul wrote to Timothy that all scripture is God-breathed (inspired) in the context of a statement that defines the purpose for scripture. It gives “wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Jesus Christ” and it is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.

When we try to define a tighter fence we will become entangled in the rusty barbed wire we have used and we add to scripture (the message of the cross) a structure of our own human construction. See the image above.

My 2¢ for what it is worth (and I realize that some will think it worth nothing or even less than nothing).

Thoughts? Disagreements? Concerns?

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  • Chris Criminger

    Hi RS,
    Some good thoughts. It seems we use a certain kind of logic in defending our views of the Bible against others. Like if you don’t believe in innerancy, you must believe in errancy—-not true. It you don’t believe in eternal security you must believe in eternal insecurity—-not true. Or with the last, we believe in nice little arguments like if you are born again, how does one get unborn? All these kinds of rationales are not only foreign to Scripture, they are based on fallible modes of thinking as quick knock down arguments against somebody who has a different understanding of Scripture. It seems like we would rather hold onto superficial apologetics to uphold certain doctrines rather than to do thinking at a much deeper harder level.

  • JL Schafer

    “But ‘inerrant’ (at least inerrant as it has come to be defined in evangelical Christianity) is simply not a useful term to describe what scripture actually is or what it testifies about itself.”

    I agree. That term doesn’t describe the scriptures that we have. Nor does it describe how scripture functions in a healthy Christian life. I know some inerrantists who are fine, mature godly people. But if you look at how they respond to scripture, they instinctively know that the Bible should be handled with caution, that certain parts must be taken very seriously, other parts less seriously. It seems to me that, as people become more dogmatic about the theory and attempt to handle Scripture as an inerrant text, it leads them toward attitudes and behaviors that are troubling, offensive, or silly.

  • I largely agree with RJS’s position in this essay. I think that when we move beyond claiming divine inspiration to claiming total inerrancy, it is easy to end up defending the absolute accuracy (on our Enlightenment rationality grounds!) of texts where absolute accuracy is not the point.

    Most people recognize that different sorts of claims are made in the Scriptures. For instance, Exodus 14:19-31 is making one kind of historical claim while Exodus 15:1-18 is making another (with Exodus 15:19 returning to the earlier account).
    Clearly, both accounts describe a great historical miracle that is intended to be taken as real. Clearly, both accounts are more interested in the evidence of the reign of God than in an exact recording of events. But, equally clearly, we are not intended to take the celebratory exclamation that Yahweh has thrown the horse and rider into the sea as a literal historical account. “Throwing the horse and rider into the sea” condenses the flow of events to the result and affirms for hymn-singing purposes that Yahweh caused the result. This celebratory claim is less connected to literal history than is the earlier account. A neutral reporter would have told the story differently, but the accounts we have tell more of the truth that we need to know than the neutral reporter’s literal account would have.

    The divinely authorized truth is that God is sovereign over history and is actively involved in salvation history both in Bible times and in present times. That truth is both inspired and authoritative even if it is conveyed to us in literary styles and worldviews that do not match our own literary styles and worldviews.

    We should not view either the worldviews of the original audiences or our own worldviews as the standard by which all truth is to be measured. God’s reign challenges any and every worldview, and God’s word is true in a way that transcends the clash of our wordlviews. I am not supporting concordism here, but I am taking more of a “live and let live” approach to contrasting worldviews.

  • RJS,

    You write, “When it comes to scripture the alternative to inerrant isn’t errant. I do not believe the bible is errant.” These two statements need more elaboration.

    If you don’t believe the sacred Scriptures are inerrant, what do you believe them to be? Like you, I wouldn’t advocate touting a position labeled “biblical errancy.” It seems to me that doing so would serve as an explicit attempt to somehow discredit the Bible and, by extension, Christianity (see atheist C. Dennis McKinsey’s Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy).

    But if the opposite of inerrant isn’t errant, then what term can we use that respects the Bible that we do have (not the Bible that we wish against all hope actually exists)? What term can we use that doesn’t advocate “bibliolatry” or making the sacred Scriptures the fourth member of the Trinity?

    I suppose we could simply live with “inspired,” but I fear that will simply devolve into further hedge-building around the term, just as Ryrie demonstrates. It would help to actually define what it means for Scripture to be “God-breathed,” but because Paul literally created that term (I don’t believe the word is found in any other Greek texts), we are somewhat at a disadvantage in definitively defining theopnuestos.

    Perhaps a great place to start in defining “inspiration” would to begin with the Bible as we have it rather attempting to define it by importing a meaning into the word that does not reflect how the Bible actually “acts” or “behaves.”

  • RJS4DQ


    My first draft of this post actually had “When it comes to scripture the opposite of inerrant isn’t errant.” As I edited to final form I realized that this was wrong and didn’t convey my meaning well.

    I think your last paragraph is dead on – and the first thing we need to do is read the whole bible without (so much as we are able) trying to import a meaning.

    As a teaser – Scot will offer a post tomorrow with some of his thinking on the topic. I think this will help us all quite a bit.

  • Stephen W

    “The doctrine of inspiration is not something theologians have to force on the Bible. Rather it is a teaching of the Bible itself, a conclusion derived from the data contained in it.”

    Whilst I agree that the Bible is inspired, I cringe at statements that talk about “what the Bible teaches about itself”. The Bible isn’t mentioned in the Bible. Ever. “Scripture” is not the same thing.

    RJS, you quote from 2 Timothy the verse about “all scripture is inspired” but have managed to circumvent the operative word in that verse – it is “useful” (“profitable” in my translation). Even without inerrancy I feel we still have a tendency to put too much emphasis on the Bible, as though God gave us a book rather than himself.

  • RJS4DQ

    Stephen W,

    I think there are two operative concepts: useful or profitable and wisdom leading to Christ. I certainly didn’t mean to circumvent “useful.” Scripture, both OT and NT, has a purpose.

  • This article is nicely done. As the author and some commentators suggest, parsing various meanings of “inerrancy” may allow some people to feel good about their belief system and may even allow them to distinguish themselves from other Christians who don’t have the “right” view of Scripture, but ultimately, the situation is much more complicated (indeed, the Scriptures are more complicated!) and one either has to exist in “cognitive dissonance” or one is forced to move away from the comfortable (western, Greek) philosophical logic in which everything is systematically spliced up and placed in particular boxes.

    In my own experience, in various local churches, some are more comfortable claiming some special type of inerrancy if they have NOT read the Scriptures very deeply. And some pastors play to that ignorance, sadly. So in our congregations we focus on claiming the “right” labels instead of really spending lots of time trying to understand how God wants us to live. It is easy to claim a label; it is much harder to live as a believer, an ambassador of God’s kingdom.

  • Guest

    I think human finitude and creatureliness vs. God as Creator is a helpful nuance. Human finitude is not error. Its how we have been created. Thus, when we see lack of omniscience or human “fingerprints” in the making of Scripture, it seems to me not a matter of error but creatureliness. This is where inerrantist don’t grapple enough because they really have a functionally dictation view where Scripture is entirely God and really not much of human beings. The Chicago Statement resists finitude when it refers to Jesus and prelapsarian Adam as examples of how the biblical authors were functioning. That is simply not accurate in my view. We are not Jesus, for example. A “sanctified” but finite human being is how I perceive the biblical authors.

  • Guest

    I agree with what you have written here. And I believe the church fathers can offer a helpful corrective. Many of them believed the Bible was “without error” but were quite aware of the difficulties. They didn’t try to do mental gymnastics to harmonize them away in the grammatical-historical manner. Instead, they saw difficulties as an opportunity to see a deeper meaning in the text. Whereas inerrantists today try to find perfect harmonization in literalistic interpretations, the church fathers sought harmonization with the gospel. Everything had to harmonize with the gospel and the plan of salvation. Thus Augustine could say that if the literal reading seemed to suggest something perverse then that is obviously not the meaning we are meant to derive from Scripture. Christ is the interpretive solution. I realize many modern minds today don’t like the idea of spiritual or allegorical readings but I do think the church fathers have a lot to teach us about remembering the point of Scripture–Scripture is to teach and point to Christ. If an interpretation does not result in what is of Christ, its not the correct interpretation. They also emphasized the purpose of Scripture–to be trained in righteousness and grow closer to God. Interestingly, many of them also had a strong interest in science and readily incorporated the “Book of Nature” into their interpretation of Scripture. If someone has not written a book on that yet, it would be a great one to see how the church fathers did not see a problem with hearing from the sciences as they read Scripture.

    Its also interesting to realize that “literal” interpretation has taken many different forms. Inerrantists say that we need to interpret it the grammatical-historical way. But, literal interpreters in the past such as Hugh of St. Victor or Nicholas of Lyra had a much more flexible understanding of “literal.” I find these former literal interpreters offer a corrective to inerrantists who think “literal” can only occur through one method. They also provide a corrective to those who would go the opposite direction and find that a literal reading of Scripture will expose it to be errant. There is a trend of those who seem jaded by the humanness in Scripture. I like what Hugh of St. Victor says (he was instrumental for emphasizing a medieval movement of literal interpretation): “But you say, ‘I find many things in the historical narratives that seem to be useless. Why should I spend time studying these sorts of stories/’ You make a good point. There are, in fact, many things in the Scriptures that seem to offer nothing worth seeking, but if you read them in light of the surrounding passages and begin to weigh them in their larger literary context, you will see that they are as indispensable as they are suitable. Some things should be learned for their own sakes, but other things, although for their own sakes they do not seem worthy of our effort, nevertheless should by no means be carelessly passed over because without them we cannot have a clear and simple understanding of the former. Learn all things, and subsequently you will see that nothing is superfluous.” (Didascalicon, Book 6, chapter 3).

    What I like about what Hugh says is that he can freely admit that there seem to be “useless” things in Scripture, while at the same time recognizing how these troubling texts still serve a purpose. That seems to be tension that many modern minds are unable to hold.

    PS: Gregory of Nyssa also has some fascinating thoughts on the human language in Scripture.

  • Andrew Dowling

    “When it comes to scripture the alternative to inerrant isn’t errant. I do not believe the bible is errant.”

    RJS, respectfully this seems to be clever wordplay to try to have cake and eat it too. Why can’t the Bible contain errors? By any objective analysis, it clearly contains proclamations historically and scientifically (or let’s say, descriptions of the natural world) that are inaccurate. And you don’t have to stretch that far to find many theological proclamations that one could say are in error (Psalm 137:9 being one of the most clear-cut examples)

    Maybe not a perfect illustration , but let’s say you had a fantasy football team in which you could pick all players who ever played the game . .you could field a team with Montana as the QB, Jim Brown as the running back, Reggie White on the D-;line etc. Despite the line-up, it wouldn’t be a “perfect” team . . there would be some interceptions, dropped passes, fumbles, missed tackles. But they’d still be good enough.

  • RJS4DQ


    It is a wordplay – but not to have cake and eat it too. I want to deflect the emphasis from the dichotomy errant vs. inerrant which really doesn’t accurately describe what scripture is or the purpose it serves.

    Psalm 137 is an interesting passage to bring up. Recently I heard a sermon where the pastor mentioned the Psalms as God’s prayerbook teaching us to pray. This was the Psalm that immediately came to mind for me. I don’t think it is an “error” – but I also don’t think it is an example of how we should pray. It is an accurate reflection of the depth of hurt the Psalmist and his audience felt in exile. Should we emulate it? Clearly no from the broad sweep of scripture. (Nor should we repeat Jephthah’s vow and action – despite the fact that he was sent by God).

    These are great examples of the problem – in modern conservative (evangelical/fundamentalist) Christianity we have defined the inerrancy and authority of scripture in a fashion that simply doesn’t hold up to the text we have preserved for us. We take this term and make scripture into something it isn’t. I think we need to dump the term, and read and study the bible itself in big chunks far more deeply and coherently.

  • Daniel Merriman

    Excellent comment.

  • Jeff Y

    Sorry for being so late to the game here, RJS (so if no response, no worries), but I find it useful to just say I affirm what Paul says in 2 Tim. 3:15-17. But, also of interest is Paul’s use of “God-breathed” (theopneustos). I used to just buy into Warfield’s take on this – that all Scripture is God’s speech (as I recall). However, it seems to me Paul is drawing on texts – from his Jewish narrative thought – like Genesis 2 and Ezekiel 37. The “breath of God” (which is intimately connected with the Spirit of God) brings life (first to Adam; then to the dry bones). In line with those, in John 20, Jesus “breathes” on the disciples and says “receive the Spirit” (a new creation life). When we see theopneustos in this light, Paul seems to be saying, “All Scripture is God’s life-giving resource” – that is definitely something I am on board with – but also allows for a wide breath of interpretation that can draw on historical, cultural, literary, scientific, etc, contextual considerations. Yet still it is God’s life-giving resource to bring humans to the completeness God designs.

  • James

    Exactly. Anyone who has thoroughly and honestly studied the Bible cannot possibly claim that it is inerrant. It is useful as a spiritual guide, but there is much chaff along with the wheat.