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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  • Josh T.

    This is interesting stuff, Roger. Bill Kinnon posted about disbelieving in inerrancy just a few days ago: (http://kinnon.tv/2012/06/the-bible-as-king.html).

    I think your take on “inerrancy” is right on target. To me it’s not just that conservative theologians mean something different than most laypeople or pastors mean by the term, it’s that the theologians mean something different than *everyone else in the English-speaking world* would understand, which I think you hinted at. So it seems like a “have one’s cake and eat it too” kind of scenario by endowing the word with a certain theological meaning that is contrary to normal usage of “inerrant” or “without error” just for the sake of keeping the word. I almost think that (perhaps subconsciously) the theologians may like the fact that people have certain connotations with “inerrant” that don’t line up with their heavily qualified definitions–maybe keeping the word glued to their qualifications actually makes them feel better, like an anesthetic to dull the pain of dealing with the Bible that we have rather than the Bible they wish we had instead.

  • Scot Miller

    Your analysis is exactly correct. So-called “inerrantists” really lack the courage of their convictions. In order for them to affirm “inerrancy” and maintain any intellectual honesty, they have to define “inerrancy” in a way that means, “without error (except for those pesky factual errors and inconsistencies that an honest reading of scripture would uncover, which aren’t “really” errors, just little …. er…. mistakes….)

    In addition, it’s also clear that the term “inerrancy” is really an a priori, ad hoc assumption that is not supported by the evidence from the biblical text. It is also a political concept, not a theological concept. Given the absence of the Roman Curia to resolve theological disputes, Protestants are left with inventing a fictional Curia called “inerrancy,” to resolve theological disputes (but really to exclude those who don’t bow to the fiction of “inerrancy.”

    Indeed, “inerrancy” is the “emperor’s new clothes” used by Protestants to cover their nakedness before a critical world. While other inerrantists affirm the beauty of the clothes (because they are afraid of what would happen to their eternal destiny if they deny it’s reality), the truth of the matter is there is no “inerrancy” there at all. It can’t be seen because it just isn’t there.

  • John C. Gardner

    I wonder how we as evangelical Christians can hold to Scripture as inerrant in a time of late modernism(e.g. the new athiests) and post modernism. Faith, belief in revelation and seeing Scripture as inspired by the Holy Spirit seem to be the way forward. We also must not expect Scripture to speak to concerns that it does not address. Inerrancy seems a flawed concept that is too qualified and yet there is fear in many evangelical settings of expressing any dissent from the idea of without error-even if the Scriptural text might have been contested in pre-modern hermeneutics or periods.

  • DRT

    You are very correct in this, but I want to thank you so much for the Piper inerrancy description. I can get a lot of useful mileage out of that. It’s like a picture speaks a thousand words….

  • Dr. Olson,
    After reading the definition of inerrancy you provided from Piper, I thought that it is a definition of Scripture I could affirm. I wouldn’t say it is a definition of inerrancy, though. If I were to describe that definition with a word or two, I would say Scripture is trustworthy and/or authentic.

    • rogereolson

      Exactly my opinion. And I happen to know that’s why he wrote it. He was applying to teach at a college that required faculty to sign a statement affirming that the Bible is “without error.” He wanted to make sure his understanding of that would be compatible with the college’s. I applaud his honesty and his definition; I just think “inerrancy” is not the right word for “perfection with respect to purpose.” Apparently he was not sure then either.

  • Roger,
    Thanks for these two posts on “inerrancy.” I have always struggled with the definition of the word. It seems to me that if you locked twenty scholars in a room and told them to come to a consensus definition of inerrancy, the room would remained locked for a long period of time and there would not be a satisfactory result. Several years ago, I read a certain evangelical seminary’s statement on inerrancy. It was so convoluted, qualified, & re-qualified that I could not be certain what they were saying.
    I believe in the authority and divine inspiration of the Bible and do not believe that it contains errors of fact given literary conventions, common sense, etc. But how to define inerrancy!
    I have to admit that I was surprised that the definition you posted came from John Piper.

    • rogereolson

      Your comment about twenty scholars locked in a room brought back a memory. When I was in seminary in the early 1970s one of my professors was Sam Mikolaski. He taught at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary before coming to North American Baptist Seminary. He told us about the Wenham Conference on inerrancy in 1966 which he attended. I don’t remember how many evangelical scholars were there, but the impression he gave was many. He said the organizers of the conference wanted to keep deliberations confidential and so swore everyone to secrecy about what conference attenders said about inerrancy. To that end they locked the doors and put paper over the windows of the room so students (Gordon College and Gordon-Conwell Seminary) and others could not look in or listen. He thought it was all very strange. His conclusion was that the gathered scholars could not come to agreement. All that is my memory of what “Dr. Sam” told us. He thought it was an exercise in futility (as I recall).

  • Paul

    Piper’s “inerrancy” is not the inerrancy taught at the Southern Baptist high school I graduate from, which was more like number 2 (i.e., every proposition, whether it be discussing faith and knowledge or history and science, corresponds to reality). I don’t really have a problem with Piper’s definition at first glance, except for the fact that by using it to saber-rattle he, and those like him, are pulling all the inerrantists to their side while making them think people like me, who want to affirm Scripture as inspired and authoritative for the Christian community but think inerrancy too problematic and muddled a term, are dangerous, when really in essence I’m not that far from his definition. I could possible affirm it and say I’m an inerrantist, but that would be deceptive–it would merely be making others think I believe what they do so they will leave me alone (a tempting thought at times) when I don’t really agree with them. As you note, it would merely be a shibboleth.

  • C.J.W.

    I have to take issue with the last point. Conservative Evangelicals are very much supportive of the Doctrine of Inerrancy, which is why the Evangelical Theological Society further defined their “Inerrancy in the Original Manuscript” to be guided by the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. They did this, of course, to try to keep open theists out. Over 4600 people (e.g., members of the ETS) at least support it on paper. They may not. If this is the case, then it was a purely political move that the ETS added it after they attempted to remove Clark Pinnock and John Sanders from their ranks. If they don’t formally support it (e.g., the members), then they need to be challenged and removed just as Pinnock and Sanders almost were. But, you and I know no one would ever challenge Piper or Erickson for their redefinition.

    • rogereolson

      In my opinion, the Chicago Statement qualifies “inerrancy” to death. Many people can accept the Chicago Statement’s definition of inerrancy and yet conclude that “inerrancy” is a misleading term for that. What would the ETS do with someone who agrees with the Chicago Statement but still reject the term “inerrancy?” I think that’s entirely possible. In my opinion, it’s like saying you believe in “capitalism” and then qualifying free market economics to the point where it looks more like socialism (but just keeping the term “capitalism” to save face and keep the public from getting riled up).

  • Kevin Peacock

    Roger, I find most definitions of inerrancy concerned with “original manuscripts.” I find this concept to be problematic, especially as it pertains to the OT scriptures. What is the “original manuscript” of Proverbs? Of Jeremiah? Of Psalms? Of Job? What if an OT book had later editorial activity involved in its production? Is the “original manuscript” the absolute original or the final product that we have now? Should the focus of our study be to find the manuscript behind the present manuscript (as the source critics have done), or the present text that we have?

    It seems that the whole concept is based upon a premise that a certain author sat down and wrote the book — which works better for the NT documents rather than the OT documents. If that is the case, I doubt any definition (or the value of one) that doesn’t pertain to the actual data that God has given us.

    • rogereolson

      Right. This is one of my main objections to “inerrancy.” Every scholar who affirms it says it applies only to the (nonexistent) original autographs. When you ask them why inerrancy is important they say it protects the Bible’s authority. But, wait. That means no actually existing Bible is authoritative! I can’t wrap my head around this. How can intelligent people think that way?

      • I’m relieved that I’m not the only one who doesn’t understand the current value of making a claim for something to which we do not now and never will have access.

        • Kevin Peacock

          The fact that we do not now have access (and may never have access) to an original manuscript is a valid observation for the weakness of the appeal to an original source. But for certain books like Proverbs that was compiled over centuries from various different sources, there probably was NEVER an “original manuscript” in the first place. The inerrancy definition doesn’t deal with the data before us.

      • Chance Sumner

        The wording of the original autographs is found within our Bibles today. We do not have the actual copies of the originals, but we do have the original wording. As Dr. Wallace says, “We have the text of the NT somewhere in the MSS….Simply put, the doctrine of inerrancy is embraced by evangelicals even in the face of a less-than-certain text of the NT. And that’s because even though there is not 100% certainty over the wording of the NT, the words of the original text are evident- in either the text or the variants of, say, the Nestle-Aland 27 text. ” Read his article “Innerancy and the Text of the New Testament: Assessing the Logic of the Agnostic View.”

        • rogereolson

          Then what’s the point of appealing to the original autographs (as alone inerrant)?

  • I had to laugh, just a little bit when I found out it was from Piper. That seems so…so…juicy a moment.



  • Great post! Growing up, I was taught that there are no errors of any kind in the Bible, PERIOD. Then as an adult, I noticed that “in the original manuscripts” was added to the definition. I also noticed that somehow inerrancy allowed for imprecision. I suspect that many who grew up in my generation with these teachings struggled the same way I did to make sense of all this.

    Although I disagree with Piper more than I agree, I agree with him that the Bible demonstrates “perfectio respectu finis (perfection with respect to purpose).”

    I think maybe it’s time we stop using the “i” word. Perhaps we should start saying the Bible is PRP : )

    • rogereolson

      Excellent suggestion. Tell that to the leaders of the Evangelical Theological Society, please.

      • I suppose ETS gets most of their loopholes from Article XIII of “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy”:

        “WE DENY that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations.”

        • rogereolson

          That’s a lot of qualifications! And they’re big ones.

          • Yes, and I agree with all of those qualifications. But the problem is that they also qualify those qualifications and claim that they are not proposing partial inerrancy. But nonetheless, I appreciate Article XIII of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.

          • Jugulum

            Would you really classify those all as “big ones”?

            I agree about “the topical arrangement of material”, when you have events described with chronological sequence that are actually out of sequence. It seems like a stretch to deny that the language means they happened in that order.

            But some of them seem to be basic clarifications about the normal way that everyone communicates. As in, I don’t see a reasonable case they’re errors even in a normal concept of “error”. (Maybe it’s not surprising for someone to do a double-take when they first see it, but only at the shallowest level of consideration.) Basically, I think you have to stretch to call these “errors”.
            Then there are some where I can see it going either way. It’s natural to think of them as errors at first glance, but it’s also natural not to.

            This is how I break it down.
            The ones that could go either way: Variant selections of material in parallel accounts, and the use of free citations.
            The ones that are a stretch to call “errors”: Lack of technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, and the use round numbers.
            And “hyperbole” seems borderline between them.

            What do you think?

          • rogereolson

            My concern is not with Piper’s specific examples but his overall definition of inerrancy as “perfection with respect to purpose.” That leaves a lot of room for all kinds of errors.

          • Jugulum

            Sure–I didn’t say anything about Piper’s examples, either. But I came in more than a month late, so I understand that this wasn’t fresh in your memory. I’ll remind you:

            You said that the Chicago Statement’s standard for “error” in Article XIII are big loopholes. That’s what I found very surprising. (You had also talked about “what most people (including they in the past) consider ‘errors.'”)

            The chronology issue, sure–I can see how it’s a stretch. That is, most people will think of that as an error, even after thinking about it. But everything else seems to fit in a normal, natural, common understanding of “error”.

            So what I’m asking you is, do you really think the qualifications in XIII are “big loopholes”, and are “what most people (including they in the past) consider ‘errors'”?

            By the way, I agree that “inerrant” isn’t the best label to use to get everyone on the same page about what we mean. Something like “trustworthily truthful” or “completely truthful in what it teaches” to be a better teaching tool, even if it means exactly the same thing as “inerrant”.

          • rogereolson

            I’m glad for your agreement expressed in the last paragraph. I wish more conservative evangelicals would detach themselves from the “inerrancy” fetish (I’m talking about the word, not the concept in its broadest definition). Regarding the Chicago Statement. I don’t have it in front of me, so I’ll be going by memory. One example I’ll mention is the qualification that Scripture is not in error when it speaks phenomenologically. It seems to me you can fit a lot of cosmological error into that qualification to try to smooth out conflicts between modern science and Scripture’s language about the cosmos and nature. Perhaps, though, my biggest objection is to one not mentioned specifically by the Chicago Statement but used by some conservative evangelicals (I think Millard Erickson does this) who are well accepted in inerrantist circles–that inerrancy is compatible with use of errant sources. Again, what I am saying is that MOST ordinary people, lay people in the pews and many pastors as well, THINK “inerrancy” means strict, technical accuracy by modern standards. Whenever I have laid out all the exceptions and qualifications made to “inerrancy” by most scholarly conservative evangelicals my students (over thirty years of teaching in three Christian universities) have laughed out loud at what they consider the word game being played.

  • if you said something, and i retold what you said to someone else, i probably wouldn’t be able to quote you “verbatim”, but i could still retell what you said by rephrasing and conveying the overall message. nobody would accuse me of misrepresenting your original message.

    when it comes to the bible however, some people take inerrancy way too far. if you define it too literally, then nothing but quoting the absolute original words you said will be sufficient. i would misrepresent you every time.

    it is sad, but it is a fact, that wisdom is lacking in people. but wisdom is however what is required when you represent what another person said. therefore wisdom needs to be applied in approaching the bible.

  • Bev Mitchell

    ‘perfectio respect finis’ outstanding. Thanks for this. The fact that Piper felt he had to add all those other words to this succinct and very workable confession, and label it inappropriately speaks volumes – and in those volumes we find the heart of the problem.

  • Such word games with “inerrancy” played for the purpose of politics and power are exactly why I am not an evangelical. It is just plain dishonest to use the word and then define it in such a way that is contradictory to how most people would understand the word. Oh, please, this kind of nonsense gives religion a bad name.

    • rogereolson

      Not all evangelicals do that, though. That’s why I distinguish between different kinds of evangelicals. Surely the good folks at Fuller Seminary are evangelicals and most of them do not play such games with “inerrancy.” Fuller dropped inerrancy from its statement of faith in the 1960s which is one thing that set off this years-long debate. It so riled conservative evangelicals that they started calling meetings (Wenham Conference in 1966) and writing jeremiads (Harold Lindsell’s Battle for the Bible). But Fuller stuck hung in there and didn’t cave. Many evangelical organizations, including the National Association of Evangelicals, do not have inerrancy statements that they require employees to sign.

  • This illustrates your point wonderfully.

    As I was reading the definition I was thinking to myself: “this sounds like what I believe, even though I do not consider myself an inerrantist.” I assumed this would be a really old definition written before the “conservative resurgence” (or whatever you want to call it) when the term was not associated strictly with fundamentalism.

    Based on the way the term is currently being used today, I did not think “perfect in respect to purpose” meant “inerrant.” I was shocked when I saw the author was Piper!

  • If I told you where beautiful, but then added 27 qualifiers, would you still think I still think your beautiful? This is exactly what goes on around this word all the time. What is even more strange to me is how folks have become afraid to use any other word to describe their belief about the Bible for fear of being labeled a liberal, even though inerrant doesn’t describe what they believe about the Bible. We define and qualify inerrant into oblivion, can’t agree on the definition and qualifiers yet there is still the demand pastors and scholars use it to show how much they love Jesus. What!?!?!

  • Jeff Martin

    Another problem with using “original manuscripts” is that we actually do have the original manuscripts if one defines that as 95% of what we have agrees with the other MSS out there. I think it is safe to say that if all MSS agree with each other we have in essence the original. That is why the “original manuscript” insertion is so ridiculous. By stating this they are actually defeating themselves. For, as a real example – all the MSS out there that give measurements of the temple pillars, one in Chronicles and the other in Kings and yet the measurements are wildly different. There are no variations in the text, so it is the original, and yet it is an error.

  • That’s why I prefer the infallible word. The original manuscripts is just extremely problematic as the whole point of defining something that does not exist.

    • rogereolson

      Of course, many (most?) inerrantists will argue that “infallible” means the same as “inerrant.” But if that’s so, why won’t the Evangelical Theological Society allow members to affirm “infallible” but not “inerrant?” Conservative evangelicals have for years scoffed at my preference for infallible, arguing that it is synonymous with inerrant, but when I ask if they’ll accept my affirmation of biblical infallibility instead of biblical inerrancy (to join their organizations) they say no. What’s with that?

      • Joshua Wooden

        What is the difference between inerrancy and infallible?

        • rogereolson

          “Infallible” refers to “not failing in its purpose.” To me, it’s identical with “perfect with respect to purpose.” Inerrancy implies something much more in terms of technical accuracy in matters that may not be related to the document’s purpose. For example, a poem might be infallible in terms of always, unfailing, inspiring the reader who has an ear for poetry. But what is an “inerrant poem?” That doesn’t even make sense.

          • Josh T.

            “Inerrant poem?” My thoughts exactly, Roger. It’s like calling a vacuum cleaner “cuddly” or saying 2+2=5. Totally nonsensical.

          • Roger,

            I think you have touched on something in wanting to revive “infallibility” and re-insert it into the conversation. But in discussions like this one, the words we used carry a lot of freight. All things being equal, would we all not prefer to drop the extra-scriptural terms including “infallible” and “inerrant” and simply speak, as Scripture does, of God’s Word being true? Isn’t that all we mean when we say Scripture is inerrant? The problem comes when modern theologians won’t let folks do that. They redefine “truth” so that it refers to some big theological notion, and they will not permit others to use it as meaning “correctness” or “accuracy” or “reliability.” So when you try to use the word “infallible,” a historical expression that is actually a stronger term than inerrancy, you find it has been coopted by other modern theologians (a la Rogers & McKim), who insist on redefining it so that it actually says less than “inerrancy.”

            So what can be done? Terms like “accuracy” and “reliability” have been distorted by theological preemption. “Correctness” seems too trivial. “Infallible” has been used to mean less than what it should be. What is left? Inerrancy. Although the term is overly technical and subject to some misunderstanding (and qualifications galore! –and what term isn’t?), many have decided to keep the word “inerrant” as a description of God’s Word. The idea, of course, is more important than the word.


          • rogereolson

            Yes, my thought is that whatever term we use for Scripture’s authority we should explain what it means–as Piper does in his explanation of “inerrancy.” I prefer “infallible” to “inerrant” but would never set it up as a shibboleth to exclude people. If someone listened to my definition of “infallible” and said, “Well, I agree with the content of your belief, but I don’t think ‘infallible’ is the right word for it” I wouldn’t reject him or her as somehow denying the Bible’s authority. Every single word for the Bible’s authority is open to misinterpretation and misunderstanding. I strive not to “go by” words but to look into the content of what a person believes. My complaint is that, far too often, evangelicals are prone to judge people’s theologies by single terms such as inerrancy.

  • Dr. Olson, one thought that comes to mind while thinking over this subject is that “inerrancy” is not the only word relative to the Bible that can be problematic. For, if one says “The Bible is the authority upon which to base beliefs and behavior,” or “The Bible is inspired by God,” or “The Bible is the Word of God,” or, “The Bible is infallible,” we could ask what these statements mean and we would very likely get a variety of answers.
    I am content with what Arminius wrote on the subject. The following statements are taken from volume 2 of the London edition. Though I have the whole set, the quotes are from The Wesleyan Center Online website. Here are some quotes from “Disputation V. Note that Arminius called the Scriptures “infallible.”:

    “5. God communicates this external word to man, either orally, or by writing. For, neither with respect to the whole of religion, nor with respect to its parts, is God confined to either of these modes of communication; but he sometimes uses one and sometimes another, and at other times both of them, according to his own choice and pleasure. He first employed oral enunciation in its delivery, and afterwards, writing, as a more certain means against corruption and oblivion. He has also completed it in writing; so that we now have the infallible word of God in no other place than in the Scriptures, which are therefore appropriately denominated ‘the instrument of religion.’

    “6. These Scriptures are contained in those books of the Old and the New Testament which are called ‘canonical:’ They consist of the five books of Moses; the books of Joshua, Judges, and of Ruth; the First and Second of Samuel; the First and Second of Kings; the First and Second of Chronicles; the books of Ezra and of Nehemiah, and the first ten chapters of that of Esther; fifteen books of the prophets, that is, the three Major and the twelve Minor Prophets; the books of Job, the Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Canticles, Daniel, and of the Lamentations of Jeremiah: All these books are contained in the Old Testament. Those of the New Testament are the following: The four Evangelists; one book of the Acts of the Apostles; thirteen of St. Paul’s Epistles; the Epistle to the Hebrews; that of St. James; the two of St. Peter; the three of St. John; that of St. Jude; and the Apocalypse by St. John. Some of these are without hesitation accounted authentic; but about others of them doubts have been occasionally entertained. Yet the number is quite sufficient of those about which no doubts were ever indulged.

    “7. The primary cause of these books is God, in his Son, through the Holy Spirit. The instrumental causes are holy men of God, who, not at their own will and pleasure, but as they were actuated and inspired by the Holy Spirit, wrote these books, whether the words were inspired into them, dictated to them, or administered by them under the divine direction.”
    Arminius made many other good statements about the Bible, all of which deserve to be studied.

  • ME

    What is the justification for perfect with respect to purpose? From my perspective I would be surprised if there weren’t some screw-ups made by the original authors/recorders. I do believe the Holy Scripture played an overwhelming role in the Bible, but how is it we justify that there no errors at all with regard to purpose?

  • DDinMS

    Great posts. But, the real reason I wanted to comment was to let you know how amused I was to see a gigantic Liberty University advertisement at the top of the web page. Priceless!

  • Who has the original manuscripts?
    Not necessary.

    The story is all true and infallible, even if one writer saw a guy in a blue hat and another said the hat was brown.
    The finite contains the infinite. Just like our Lord Himself. Fully man…and yet fully God.
    Do people not yet understand how God works?

  • Steve Dal

    ‘I think that’s entirely possible. In my opinion, it’s like saying you believe in “capitalism” and then qualifying free market economics to the point where it looks more like socialism (but just keeping the term “capitalism” to save face and keep the public from getting riled up).’. You know, I really wonder whether Piper is ‘moving’. It seems to me he wants his cake and eat it too. In the end he is appeasing the innerancy crowd but also explaining it away so that it is really meaningless. It also hilites for me this endless defining and redefining of expressions. In the end they look like moving targets as Piper has done here. I struggle with Piper.

    • rogereolson

      Let me be clear, however, that I agree with Piper’s principle “perfect with respect to purpose.” I think his definition of “inerrancy” is good except that I don’t think “inerrancy” is the right word for what he defines. It would better fit “infallible.” I don’t think Piper has moved on this; the definition is still up at his web site. My point was that many, many “conservative evangelicals” qualify “inerrancy” in ways like this and my objection is to their rejecting people (as not equally evangelical with them) who reject the term “inerrancy.” (I don’t attribute that to Piper; I don’t know what he thinks of people who reject the term inerrancy. We haven’t discussed it.)

  • Bev Mitchell

    So many of us had Peter’s (comment above) experience as youth and even young adults. I agree with his suggestion and this, at least, can be used when the topic comes up in church circles.  Inerrancy can be so useful though. For example, when we don’t want to broach a certain subject and there is any chance that it might call for a second interpretive look, we can immediately play the inerrancy card. It’s just like a joker. 🙁

  • Joshua Wooden

    What you’re suggesting here seems similar, in my mind, to what Christians Smith suggested in his book. If I remember correctly, Smith contended (I don’t have the book with me to refer to the exact location unfortunately) that inerrancy is necessarily true or not true, but it’s ultimately made irrelevant by the fact that it fails to bring about unity in interpretation.

    Is that what you’re suggesting here (that is, that it may be true, at least in a highly qualified and ultimately irrelevant sense)?

    • rogereolson


  • John Inglis

    The significance of the inerrancy issue is not merely internal. It says volumes to the nonChristians and really reduces our ability to witness. Non-believers read all the qualifications around “inerrancy” and see it as being insincere and hypocritical–using a word that everyone takes one way, but that they themselves define so very differently that it does not mean the same. For a very pertinent example, see the below statement from the Skeptical Review Online website:

    “Skepticism, Inc., is reissuing this debate as a monument to the utter failure of the Bible inerrancy doctrine. The text of this debate also testifies to the insincerity and hypocrisy of fundamentalist preachers who try to defend a doctrine that they know is erroneous. Throughout the debate, Mr. Jackson relied on ad hominem tirades in an obvious effort to draw attention away from his inability to prove the inerrancy of the Bible.”

    [see full text at: http://www.theskepticalreview.com/tsrmag/JFTJacksonTillInerrancyDebate.html%5D

  • John Inglis

    Dennis Bratcher is one writer who sees very clearly the negative effect that the inerrancy redefinition is having on our witness, our ability to clearly communicate the gospel.:

    “If the purpose of theology and theological expressions, beyond affirming certain creeds, is to communicate what we understand about God to others (theos + logos = God-talk), then the terms we use ought to communicate clearly. That is as much a function of the development of language in a culture as it has to do with truth. In most contexts today, we would not normally tell people, for example, that they look gay, although I heard that exact expression used in an old “Brady Bunch” episode a couple of weeks ago. If the meaning of a theological term has shifted so that its use is no longer clear, then for the sake of communication we probably need to find terms that will communicate rather than risk being misunderstood, or not heard at all.

    I think we are in such a position in our modern culture with the term “inerrant” or “inerrancy” applied to Scripture. Even though that term has been used in the past as a faith confession about the nature of Scripture on some level, usually affirming the Bible as a reliable guide for the Faith and practice of the church, it has come to mean something quite different. In many contexts it has become a shibboleth in promoting certain ideological agendas, and is being used by some as a means to divide and judge other Christians to the point that it creates more controversy and debate than it communicates anything positive about the Christian Faith or about Scripture.

    In the larger social and cultural scene, the whole concept of the inerrancy of Scripture may actually be having the opposite effect than many intend. It is intended to affirm the authority and value of Scripture as the sole guide to the Christian Faith, as the source of inspired instruction for meeting the spiritual and ethical challenges of a modern world. Yet the direction in which the concept has evolved and the manner in which it is being presented today both tend toward an “all or nothing” or an “either/or” acceptance of a whole range of ideological and theological ideas linked to the concept, with a corresponding militant attitude toward those who do not accept it in toto. The result has been that in many cases beyond the narrow circles of those who promote the concept, it has weakened the credibility of Scripture and created tremendous controversy, friction, and pain within the Christian community.

    I think we would be able to move further toward maintaining the credibility of the Bible to skeptics of our day, as well as providing a more positive witness to the transforming grace of God revealed in Christ, if we discard the whole concept of inerrancy, at least in the way it is advocated by many today. I think it simply creates more problems in our communication of the Gospel message than it solves. Wesleyans can affirm and defend the truth, authority, and reliability of Scripture far better on other grounds, and even other theological camps have better ways to affirm the authority and trustworthiness of Scripture.”

    [full article at: http://www.crivoice.org/inerrant.html%5D

    So the understanding and concerns raised by Olson is slowly spreading among thoughtful Christians, and one can pray that it will continue to spread.

  • John Inglis

    And how about this escape hatch on the Reformation21 website, “the doctrine that the Bible is infallible and without error in all that it teaches” (emphasis added). So the doctrine is saved by moving the debate one step back. Now we can argue about what a passage teaches, rather than whether it is inerrant.

    But notice how the escape hatch is not only gamed from the get go, but also circular. Because of the doctrine of literal inerrancy, the scripture passage cannot in error, so if there is an error, it must be that the Bible is not teaching that error, and if the Bible is not teaching that error, then the Bible must be inerrant.

    Hence, rather than working out what the Bible is teaching, they start off by eliminating possible teachings based simply on a pre-asserted definition of inerrancy. Then they use that restricted teaching (only teachings that would eliminate errancy are allowed) to support the doctrine of inerrancy.

    And we wonder why nonbelievers think we are granola people–nuts, fruits and flakes.

  • John Inglis

    Sorry for 3 comments in a row. I’ve just finished a trial, and am back to reading this blog and have a lot of pent up tension and comments to release. I’m OK now.

    • rogereolson

      I always appreciate your comments.

  • Adam L

    This is excellent. Thanks, Dr. Olson! I think you nailed the true motivations in that final paragraph.

    Greg Boyd has actually been blogging on this subject recently as well here:


    • rogereolson

      It’s scary when Greg and I think alike! 🙂

  • As vague as I might be, I hold to “doctrinal inerrancy,” which means that the teachings in the Bible are without error while I reject that the Holy Spirit and ancient Mediterranean Bible writers intended to write with modern standards of history and science.

    • rogereolson

      Well, that’s not as vague as simply “biblical inerrancy.” At least you qualify inerrancy so that someone who hears you knows you’re not claiming every jot and tittle of the Bible is without error–which is what Lindsell and other strict inerrantists meant. They would call your view “partial inerrancy.”

  • Jeff Martin

    I think we should avoid using the word “infallible” as well. If one looks up the word in the dictionary the first definition is “without error”, and the second is “incapable of failing”. The third is a usage by the Catholic Church of statements that come ex cathedra.

    What this debate does not need are words that are too ambiguous. No only that but I do not like “perfection with respect to purpose” either because I believe that really does not mean anything at all. Is not every authors’ purpose perfect? Obviously they are trying to say something clearly so people can understand and learn.

    I believe the only thing we can say about the Bible is that it is glasses to help us see God better and does its job sufficiently.

  • Jeff Martin

    Okay no that is not true, I should say a little more – The Bible is most helpful written “glasses” to help us see God better, not just a “set of glasses” and we are not going to find another set of those kind of glasses again so we should use those as the standard. Notice I emphasize “written” because Jesus is the full revelation and the church and our experiences fall in as further revelation as well but not written

  • Dr. Olson, I want to add to this discussion theologian John Murray’s statements about inerrancy. They are taken from his book, “Calvin On Scripture And Divine Sovereignty,” He concluded that the famous Reformer affirmed the inerrancy of the Bible. And in so doing, Murray gave a reasonable discussion of the subject of inerrancy. His statements can be helpful to us today. The following quote is taken from chapter 1, page 30, of his book. Murray wrote: “It must be emphatically stated that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy for which the church has contended throughout history, and for which a great many of us still contend, is not based on the assumption that the criterion of meticulous precision in every detail of record or history is the indispensable canon of Biblical infallibility. To erect such a canon is utterly artificial and arbitrary and is not one by which the inerrancy of Scripture is to be judged. It is easy for the opponents of inerrancy to set up such artificial criteria and then expose the Bible as full of errors. We shall have none of that, and neither will Calvin. The Bible is literature and the Holy Spirit was pleased to employ the literary forms of the original human writers in the milieu in which they wrote. If Solomon’s temple took sever and a half years to build, as we can readily calculate (cf. 1 Kings 6:37, 38), are we to suppose that it is an error to say in the same context that Solomon was seven years in building it (1 Kings 6:38)? Or if a certain king is said to have reigned twenty-two years (cf. 1 Kings 14:20), we must not impose upon such a statement the necessity of his having reigned precisely twenty-two years in terms of twenty-two times three hundred and sixty-five days. He may have reigned only twenty-one years in terms of actual computation and yet twenty-two years in terms of the method of reckoning in use. The Scripture abounds in illustrations of the absence of the type of meticulous and pedantic precision which we might arbitrarily seek to impose as the criterion of infallibility. Everyone should recognize that in accord with accepted forms of speech and custom a statement can be perfectly authentic and yet not pedantically precise. Scripture does not make itself absurd by furnishing us with pedantry.”

    • rogereolson

      So why use “inerrancy?” Why not say “authentic?” Everyone I know who is not taught this definition of inerrancy assumes it means meticulous and pedantic precision. When someone comes up to me and says “Do you believe in the inerrancy of the Bible?” they always want a straight “yes” or “no” answer. The moment I start explaining (as Murry does in that quote) they always stop me and say “Just yes or no, please.” My point is that the majority of conservative evangelical scholars who say “yes” don’t mean by “inerrancy” what the lay questioner means. Then, when someone comes along (like I) and says “I don’t think the word ‘inerrancy’ is the right word for what we scholars believe about the Bible’s accuracy” they lock us out of their professional societies and sometimes out of their schools and mission agencies, etc.

      • If you meant “Why not say ‘The Bible is the authentic Word of God,'” you are right. It is that. But that statement can mean different things to different persons. So, what do you mean by it?

  • Roger, you started my mind on bibliology and I have one more comment, which focuses on the importance of the original manuscripts. Jesus Christ and the apostolic church appeared to accept the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible as the Word of God. Likewise, the notion that inerrancy applies only to the original manuscripts is not a New Testament notion.

  • Jugulum

    Dr. Olson,

    Since you called attention back to Piper’s definition as “perfection with respect to purpose”, I was wondering something about that.

    Short version: What kind of “purpose” is meant there? Authorial intent in the meaning of the language? Or “effect”, like in Isaiah 55:11 (“it shall accomplish that which I purpose”)?

    Elaboration: If “perfection with respect to purpose” means authorial intent, then we’re in the realm of observing that “I am the door” isn’t supposed to mean “I am a physical entryway into a building.” (Similarly, “There were 100 people at the party” is probably supposed to mean “100 plus-or-minus a few”, unless it’s written in the accounting for the party’s expenses, where numbers are understood to be precise.)

    But if “perfect with respect to purpose” means “God’s Word will accomplish what He intends it to”, then we’re not talking about the right understanding of the meaning of the text–we’re talking about the effect that the text will have. And that makes room for people who think we’re supposed to evaluate the moral teaching of the Bible, find it wanting, and rise above it. It makes room for the idea that we can rightly understand the claims & teaching in Scripture, and then reject them.

    In the first view, Scripture is trustworthily truthful. In the latter, it’s not necessarily truthful–God is simply using the text providentially as a tool in our growth.

    I’d be very surprised if Piper meant the latter. And from what I’ve seen of the debate around using “infallible” as an alternative to “inerrant”, this is the sticking point for conservatives who don’t want to give up “inerrant”.

    • rogereolson

      I’ll just remind you that I showed Piper’s explanation of “inerrancy” to Carl Henry who rejected it as well-intentioned but inadequate. I think there is plenty of middle ground between the two definitions of “perfect with respect to purpose” that you propose. Years ago in Eternity magazine Robert Mounce published a column (he had a regular column there where he answered readers’ questions) in which he argued that “inerrancy” is compatible with factual errors of math, historical dating, etc. and demonstrated convincingly that such errors (by modern standards of accuracy) exist in Scripture (as Dewey Beegle demonstrated in Scripture, Tradition and Infallibility). Mounce argued cogently that we must not impose on Scripture modern, scientific standards of accuracy that are completely foreign to the ancient cultures in which the Bible was written. His concern was with the word “error” and how there is no universal agreement on what constitutes “error.” He concluded, as I recall, by saying that the authors of Scripture were not interested in giving a flawless performance in statistics. For this he was thoroughly vilified by conservative evangelicals–especially Lindsell in The Battle for the Bible.

  • Dr. Olson,

    On the one hand you say that inerrancy is often defined to death, while also asserting that it should be defined, otherwise it’s not meaningful for an evangelical to even assert their belief in biblical inerrancy. You indicate that Piper’s definition is a good start but inadequate, and you make reference to Carl F.H. Henry who affirms your position.

    I’m curious then as to what a more proper definition of inerrancy would be (since Piper’s definition is somewhat inadequate), and when you think it would start bordering on being “over” defined?


    • rogereolson

      I don’t object to people “defining” inerrancy. In fact, that’s what I’m calling for. What I object to is qualifying it to death and then insisting people still hang on to the term inerrancy instead of admitting that, for example, “infallibility” is a better word for what is actually believed. My argument is that the vast majority of ordinary, non-tutored people in the pews (and many pastors) hear “inerrancy” and rightly assume what is meant (about the Bible) is modern, technical, scientific accuracy. Then they hear that some evangelical theologian believes there are “errors” in the Bible (ones that fit the qualifications inerrancy scholars all take for granted) and assume he or she is denying inerrancy. Then they go on a rampage to get the theologian fired when, in fact, he or she very well may agree entirely with “inerrancy” as it is defined and qualified by the very conservative scholars the lay people respect and consider the gold standards of evangelical conservatism. I prefer to just be honest with myself and admit that “inerrancy” is not the right word for what most of us evangelicals scholars, conservative or otherwise, believe about the Bible. In brief, no respectable definition of “inerrancy” I know of, even by very conservative evangelical scholars (e.g., deans of Southern Baptist seminaries!), really fits what the average person believes inerrancy must mean. In our modern, scientific age of technology, “inerrancy” automatically implies accuracy no ancient text could possibly live up to (or down to as in the case of poetry, parables, etc.). My theory is that if you took all the members of the Evangelical Theological Society with Ph.D.s in biblical studies or theology and polled them on what “inerrancy” means you would find a tremendous diversity and the word would no longer work as a litmus test. The problem is, the (often influential) people in the pews and pulpits do not know this. So when an evangelical like myself steps up and says “Well, folks, I don’t like the word ‘inerrancy’ because in its ordinary meaning it doesn’t fit the phenomena of Scripture,” they accuse him (me) of denying the authority of the Bible. Believe me, it happens.

      • Dr Olson,

        Sorry, I think you misunderstood me. I agree with you on all the points you raised here (and elsewhere) on the issue of inerrancy.

        What I’d like is for you to refer me to a source that you believe defines “inerrancy” satisfactorily (hopefully not a 100+ page book, but i guess that will suffice if there isn’t a shorter document somewhere)

        If there isn’t one (to your current knowledge) then i’m happy to move completely away from the term and just use terms like infallible, reliable, trustworthy, authentic, inspired, etc.


        • rogereolson

          Clark Pinnock provides a definition of inerrancy he could live with in The Scripture Principle, but I don’t think “inerrancy” fits his definition (and his definition is not far from Piper’s). Stan Grenz defined inerrancy in a very broad way in Theology for the Community of God. I talked to Stan about that and he pretty much confirmed my suspicion–that he didn’t really believe “inerrancy” is a good word for his own view of Scripture, but he wanted to be accepted by conservative evangelicals and knew that to deny the word inerrancy would alienate them. He and Pinnock both wanted to be members of the Evangelical Theological Society which requires affirmation of inerrancy but, at least until recently, allowed great leeway in defining it.