Further thoughts on why “inerrancy” is problematic

Further thoughts on why “inerrancy” is problematic June 11, 2012

Notice I put “inerrancy” in “scare quotes.” That’s to indicate that what I am talking about is the term, not precisely the concept. Or, to put it another way, my concern is that the term is used for many different concepts and therefore, without definition, is virtually meaningless.

Now I am going to quote a leading evangelical theologian’s definition of biblical inerrancy. I’m not revealing his name first; his identity as the definition’s author is below it. I challenge you to read the definition first and only then see who wrote it. And before peeking at the author’s name, formulate an opinion about it. Is the definition what you thought “inerrancy” means? Is it what leading conservative evangelical inerrantist theologians mean? How many would agree with it?

Here is the definition which is copyrighted, but the author’s web site gives permission to disseminate it with the copyright line following. I also provide, as requested, a link to the source of the definition at the author’s web site. (However, I first encountered it elsewhere; it was given to me by a colleague many years ago.)

The definition:

“I. The Word of God

“The Bible is…without error in the original manuscripts…”  Since there is a wide diversity of opinions on the meaning of “error” in such an affirmation, it is appropriate that I give my understanding of the word in this context so that you know what I am affirming.

I will suggest two definitions of “error”, the first of which I consider proper for judging the reliability of any literature including the Bible and the second of which I consider improper.  According to the first I believe the Bible is “without error”.

1) A writer is in error when the basic intention in his statements and admonitions, properly understood in their nearer and wider context, is not true.  (In reference to indicative statements, “true” means they correspond to reality; in reference to admonitions “true” means that obedience of these admonitions is in harmony with reality, i.e., it accords with the will of God.)

2) A writer is in error if any of his individual statements are not literally true.

The difference between these two definitions and my own understanding of the truth of the Bible may be clarified by three illustrations from Scripture. (To many of my fellow theologians the following would sound elementary to the point of being superfluous. But in my tradition it is a necessary starting point if we are to come to properly understand our affirmation on Scripture.)

A) God says against Jerusalem through Jeremiah (15:8), “I have made their widows more in number than the sand of the sea.” This statement is “literally” false.  But according to definition 1 above, it is not false since the basic intention of Jeremiah is to press home (by an exaggeration which had become a commonplace analogy in the Old Testament) the tragically large number of widows as a sign of God’s judgment.

B) Jesus says in Mark 4:31 that the Kingdom of God “is like a grain of mustard seed which when sown upon the ground is the smallest of all the seeds on earth…”  According to definition 2 above, Jesus erred here because the mustard seed is not the smallest seed on the earth.  But according to the first definition he did not err because his basic intention was not in the least botanical.  The point is the great contrast between the smallness of the seed and the largeness of the full-grown shrub.  Jesus capitalized on the proverbial smallness of the mustard seed (TWNT, VII, p. 288) to make a perfect, inerrant point about the Kingdom of God.

C) If we used definition 2 above the Gospel writers would have to be accused of error in their chronology of events of Jesus’ life.  Just one illustration: The story of the healing of the paralytic (Mt. 9:1-8 = Mk 2:1-12 = Lk 5:17-26), the call of Levi (Mt 9:9-13 = Mk 2:13-17 = Lk 5:27-32), and the question about fasting (Mt 9:14-47 = Mk 2:18-22 = Lk 5:33-39) follow back to back in all three Synoptics and so refer to the same events.  Again, the stilling of the storm (Mt 8:23-27 = Mk 4:35-41 = Lk 8:22-25) and the Gesarene demoniac (Mt 8:28 = Mk 5:1-20 = Lk 8:26-39) follow back to back in all three Synoptics so that with the verbal parallels one can see that the same sequence of events is being referred to in each Gospel.  But Matthew has these last two events before the three cited above.  While Mark and Luke have them after these three events.  It cannot be both ways.

But the Synoptics are not in error here according to the first definition above because it was not their basic intention to give a rigid chronology of Jesus’ ministry (which Papias said already in the second century, cf. Eusebius, E. H. III, 39, 14ff).  Their intention was rather to give a faithful presentation of the essential features of Jesus’ teaching and deeds.  In this particular instance Matthew probably felt he could best do this by including the storm stilling and Gesarene demoniac scenes in his composition of chapters 8 and 9 where he has gathered ten miracle stories.  This presentation of Jesus’ miracle working is then bracketed together with the Sermon on the Mount with the identical summary statements in 4:23 and 9:35.  Thus we have a literary unit which beautifully and inerrantly sets forth the essential features of our Lord’s ministry.

These three illustrations should suffice to clarify my understanding of the affirmation: “The Bible is without error.”  I thus gladly align myself with the long-proved tradition: perfectio respect finis (perfect with respect to purpose).  I know no better statement of my own position on this matter than that of the Second Baptist Confession of 1677: “The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith and obedience…”

But I think just as important as agreeing with Affirmation I in detail is my deep commitment to the spirit of it.  From history and from my own experience I can say that it is almost impossible to exaggerate the importance of the Bible.  We humans are incapable of finding out what we need so much to know: how to overcome sin, to escape the wrath of God, to become new creatures, to walk pleasing to the Lord.  God must reveal this to us or we perish.  This he has done and continues to do by means of the written Word, the Bible.  When a man has understood the Bible he has understood the revelation of God infallibly, inerrantly, and verbally.”

End of the defintion. Please don’t peek at the author’s identity (below) until you’ve considered what you think about this definition. Then read on.




The author is John Piper. The definition may be found at the following web site:


Here is the requested copyright statement: By John Piper. ©2012 Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org


Notice that, in essence, what John Piper says is that the Bible’s “inerrancy” means “perfection with respect to purpose.” It does NOT, he says, require literal interpretation. In fact, it is compatible with blatant errors INSOFAR as the author’s intention was not to be technically precise.

I once showed this definition of inerrancy to Carl F. H. Henry. I have his hand written letter responding to it. He said the author is well intentioned but needs help because the exceptions and qualifications leave inerrancy too open, too imprecise.

Precisely. That’s my point. Even strong inerrantist theologians do not agree among themselves about what inerrancy means. I believe I could affirm John Piper’s definition of inerrancy. But I would be willing to bet that if I produced it without John Piper’s name as its author and said it is what I believe “inerrancy” means many conservative evangelical (neo-fundamentalist) gatekeepers would reject me as not believing in inerrancy.

It is my personal opinion, based on thirty years’ experience “in the thick” of evangelicalism that much of the debate over inerrancy has to do with personalities, situations and contexts. One proof of that, to me, is that Harold Lindsell, author of The Battle for The Bible, signed the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy even though it contains qualifications he explicitly rejected in his book as incompatible with real belief in inerrancy. (The specific issue was Robert Mounce’s column about inerrancy in Eternity magazine. Lindsell attacked it in his book for qualifying inerrancy too much. Then, when Mounce’s qualifications were included in The Chicago Statement, Lindsell signed it anyway.)

I think John Piper’s definition of inerrancy as “perfection with respect to purpose” is good EXCEPT most people would not think that’s what “inerrancy” means. The vast majority of people who hear about “biblical inerrancy” THINK it means technical, precise, exact correspondence with reality with no room for estimates, rounding up or down of numbers, reliance on errant sources, etc., etc. During thirty years of teaching theology I have had the constant experience of showing students the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy and conservative evangelical theologians’ qualifications (e.g., Millard Erickson’s) and having them laugh. When I asked them why they laughed they always said “That’s not ‘inerrancy’.” Exactly.

What has happened is that conservative evangelical theologians and biblical scholars like Piper and Erickson and others have realized, as a result of their higher educations and researches, that the Bible DOES contain what most people (including they in the past) consider “errors.” But they want to hold onto the term “inerrancy” because it is such a useful litmus test for excluding “liberals” and other undesirables from the evangelical movement. So, instead of simply discarding the term “inerrancy,” they redefine it to death. But, almost no lay person and few pastors understand that’s what’s happening. They think the leading defenders of “inerrancy” believe what THEY do. The secret is, the scholars don’t.

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