Why inerrancy doesn't matter

Why inerrancy doesn't matter August 19, 2010

I know I promised more about postconservative evangelicalism today.  Even though it may not seem directly related to a delineation of that, this post does help explicate how most postconservatives think about the inspiration and authority of the Bible. 

First, a strong affirmation.  As evangelicals, we postconservatives DO believe the Bible is our (and should be every Christian’s) norming norm for life and belief.  Tradition is our normed norm–a secondary guide or compass that is not infallible.  Scripture, we all agree, is infallible in all that it teaches regarding God and salvation.

Second, however, for most of us the word “inerrancy” has become too problematic uncritically to embrace and use.  To the untrained and untutored ear “inerrant” always and necessarily implies absolute flawless perfection even with regard to numbers and chronologies and quotations from sources, etc.  But even the strictest scholarly adherents of inerrancy kill that definition with the death of a thousand qualifications.  Some who insist that you must be evangelical to be faithful to Scripture’s authority say inerrancy is consistent with biblical authors’ use of errant sources.  In other words, they say, the Bible is nevertheless inerrant if it contains an error so long as the author used an errant source inerrantly.

How many people in the pews know about these qualifications held by many, if not all, scholarly conservative evangelicals?  When I teach these qualifications to my students (as I have done over almost 30 years) the reaction is almost uniformly the same: “That’s not what ‘inerrancy’ means!”  I have them read the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy and most of them laugh at the twists and turns it makes in order to qualify inerrancy to make it fit with the undeniable phenomena of Scripture.

The biggest qualification is that only the original autographs were inerrant.  Think about this.  The claim made by most conservative evangelicals (and, of course fundamentalists) is that biblical authority stands or falls with inerrancy.  If the Bible contains any real errors it cannot be trusted.  Then they admit every Bible that exists probably contains errors.  Only the original manuscripts on which the inspired authors wrote can be considered perfectly inerrant.

Again, for almost 30 years I’ve presented this to my students and allowed them to react.  The reaction is almost always the same: Huh?  Then no Bible we have is inerrant and therefore no Bible we have is authoritative.  Right.  You can’t make authority depend on inerrancy and then say no existing Bible is inerrant without calling every Bible’s authority into question.  It’s a hole in inerrantists’ logic so huge even a sophomore can drive a truck through it.

My experience teaching theology has been that more students give up belief in the Bible’s authority because they were taught it depends on absolute inerrancy (even in matters of cosmology and history) than because they are taught it isn’t inerrant.  In other words, they discover for themselves the problems with inerrancy once they face the problems.  Wouldn’t it be better to be totally honest with young people about the Bible so that they do not face a crisis of faith when they finally have to face up to its factual flaws (that even inerrantists admit but rarely tell people in the pews)?

What’s ironic is that many strong inerrantists who insist belief in the Bible’s inerrancy is necessary for authentic evangelical faith define inerrancy in highly questionable ways.  In other words, “inerrancy” has become a shibboleth.  So long as you affirm the word you can go on to define it however you want to and you’re still “in.”

Here’s an example.  a leading inerrantist wrote his own definition of inerrancy for a college where he applied to teach.  I taught at that same college later and his statement about inerrancy fell into my hands.  His definition was “perfection with respect to purpose.”  He admitted that many statement of Scripture, taken at face value, are wrong, but so long as they do not touch on matters of the Bible’s main purpose which is to identify God for us and lead us into salvation, these do not matter.  This scholar has emerged as a leading defender of biblical inerrancy and has spoken out very publicly about it (without explaining his own definition).  I confirmed at least twice over the years that he still believes in his definition of inerrancy.

I sent his two page definition and description of “inerrancy” to Carl F. H. Henry and asked him for an analysis and evaluation of the statement (without naming its author).  All I told Henry was that this person wrote the statement for the college as an applicant for a teaching position.  I didn’t mention that it was years earlier.  My purpose was an experiment about how the word “inerrancy” functions in evangelical circles.

Henry wrote back a two page, handwritten letter blasting the statement as totally inadequate.  He said “This person means well but needs help [understanding inerrancy].”  The thrust of his response was that the college should not hire this person.  And yet, the person who wrote the statement is widely considered an influential conservative evangelical who has publicly criticized others for allegedly not truly believing in biblical inerrancy.

Not too long ago I had a debate with another leading conservative evangelical inerrantist.  This one was an officer of the Evangelical Theological Society which requires affirmation of inerrancy for membership.  I have never joined because I don’t think inerrancy is the right word for what we evangelicals believe–including those who hold to the term.  This person is also an officer of a leading evangelical seminary.  After much communication back and forth we realized that we differ hardly at all about the Bible.  Given his qualifications of inerrancy and my high view of Scripture (supernatural inspiration and highest authority for life and faith) our accounts of the Bible were nearly identical.  So I asked him if I could join the ETS without affirming the word “inerrancy.”  He said no.  To me that proves it is just a shibboleth.

The theologian I referred to earlier who defines inerrancy as “perfection with respect to purpose” and whose expanded definition was deemed totally “inadequate” by Carl F. H. Henry still is and has been for many years an influential member of the ETS!

I have to conclude that within evangelical circles “inerrancy” has developed into a mere shibboleth because a person (such as I) can affirm everything many leading inerrantists believe about the Bible and yet be rejected and even criticized.  I fear they have elevated a word into an idol.

So how would I describe my own and many inerrantists’ view of Scripture’s accuracy?  I think “infallible” does a better job than “inerrant” so long as I can explain what it means.  “Infallible,” to me, means the Bible never fails in its main purpose which is to identify God for us, to communicate his love and his will to us, and to lead us into salvation and a right relationship with our Creator, Savior and Lord. 

I like theologian Emil Brunner’s illustration.  (I don’t necessarily agree with everything he wrote about the Bible.)  In his little book Our Faith Brunner wrote about the old RCA Victrola advertisement that showed a dog listening to the megaphone of a record player.  Under the picture the caption read “His master’s voice.”  We recognize our master’s voice in Scripture in spite of its inevitable flaws, just as the dog in the illustration recognized his master’s voice in spite of the inevitable flaws on the record.

I think it is time we evangelicals matured enough to get over obsession with a word and care more about our common belief in the Bible’s authority in all matters pertaining to faith and practice.  We used to be able to do this.  After all, the statement of faith of the National Association of Evangelicals has never included inerrancy.  And leading evangelicals of the past who were universally considered authentically evangelical denied inerrancy.  (For example Scottish evangelical theologian James Orr who wrote chapters for The Fundamentals and was a good friend of B. B. Warfield!)

When I deny inerrancy I am not necessarily denying anything many inerrantists believe.  It may be, and I think is the case, that I am only denying that the word “inerrancy” is the most helpful or accurate term for what they and I believe in common.

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