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Saturday, August 26, 2006

Biblical Inerrancy I: What Inerrancy Is Not

Within this awful volume lies
The mystery of mysteries;
Happiest he of human race
To whom God has given grace
To read, to fear, to hope, to pray.
To lift the latch, and learn the way;
And better had he ne’er been born
Who reads to doubt, or reads to scorn.
- Sir Walter Scott

(Intro and Ground Rules are here)

Before I define inerrancy, I will first set out to reduce the confusion that exists over the term by defining what it is not. There are essentially two types of misunderstandings about inerrancy: the first, which will comprise this post, are confusions with other spiritual terms often applied to Scripture, and the second, which will comprise the next post, are intentional “straw man” mischaracterizations used for ease in attacking inerrancy. While the first type can also be intentional, they are the ones most likely to be unwittingly confused, and thus we address them first - inspiration, authority, interpretation and importance.

1) Inerrancy is not inspiration.

“All scripture is breathed out by God…”(2 Timothy 3:16a)

The inspiration of the scriptures is an issue that has many academic angles – how were they inspired? What role was played by the Holy Spirit, and what role by the human authors? When we discuss the inspiration of the Scriptures, we are speaking of the source of the Scriptures. As with the rest of these misunderstandings of inerrancy, there is a relationship between the terms. Divine inspiration is a requirement for the Bible to be inerrant, yet it is not entirely true that “if it is inspired, it is inerrant”. The understanding of the meaning of “God-breathed” scriptures is a key component to inerrancy – but inerrancy is not inspiration.

2) Inerrancy is not authority

“…and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” (2 Timothy 3:16b-17)

The authority of Scripture is also a separate issue from inerrancy. Specifically, authority is drawn from a view that includes the sources of revelation, both general and specific, the relevancy of different types of revelation, and the relationship between human experience, the church, history and Scripture. Authority and inerrancy are related in nearly the opposite manner that inspiration and inerrancy are – one’s view of inerrancy determines a large portion of their view of Biblical authority. Authority is the level of rule that we give the Scriptures over our theology and worldview, and is largely based upon the presence or absence of inerrancy – but inerrancy is not authority.

3) Inerrancy is not interpretation

“no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:17)

“That’s just your interpretation” we often hear. Of all the possible ideas confused with inerrancy, this is the most common – that inerrancy is merely just a description of one’s interpretation. However, like authority, interpretation will be driven in large part by inerrancy, and indeed, by authority. Someone who rejects inerrancy will interpret the Scriptures in any way to make their current thoughts and behaviors seem justified. On the other hand, someone who believes in an inerrant Bible is forced to confront a greater breadth of challenges from an uncompromising word of God. Inerrancy is a limiter to interpretation, because an inerrant word of God cannot be interpreted in any way we want, but only within the reasonable bounds of the words chosen in their literary and cultural context. On the contrary, a lack of inerrancy opens interpretation to the full bounds of human imagination. Clearly, inerrancy is not interpretation.

4) Inerrancy is not importance.

Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these. (Mark 12:28-31)

To those who already believe in Biblical inerrancy, it may sound sacrilegious to say that “All Scripture is not equally important”. However, it is clear that Jesus himself recognized what should be easily seen – after all, his questioner saw it. Some Scriptures are more important than others, despite being equally inerrant. Confusion with importance can be a stumbling block to those considering the question of inerrancy, because they can’t see how the genealogies of Chronicles are equally as important as the resurrection. Simply put, they aren’t! Furthermore, all Scripture is not equally applicable. Try teaching a group of 1st graders about the Levitical code for priests! Instead, teaching them the Biblical precepts that God made them, loves them, and that Jesus wants to be their friend forever will be far more applicable to them. It is important that we recognize that not all of Scripture is equally important or equally applicable – but inerrancy is not importance.

Hopefully we have clarified some of the possible confusion surrounding inerrancy by showing that it is more restricted in definition than some think it to be – although it may be less restricted in impact on our faith and our lives. The next post will discuss the false depictions of inerrancy given by those who will not accept it called "Straw Men", followed by “Inerrancy Defined.”


  • This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    By Blogger Mark, at 8/26/2006 08:39:00 PM  

  • I agree with everything except, perhaps, number three. Are you claiming that the phrase "there are many ways to interpret the Bible, one of them is to assume it is inerrant" is a fundamentally flawed phrase? I can certainly see why you believe all valid interpretations assume inerrancy but you seem to be taking the argument a step further. Ultimately, this is the thesis of your series (I assume) so I guessing that wasn't the real reason to put number three into this section.

    Also, just to provide feedback to improve your argument, it would seem possible to write this section so even people like myself, who don't believe in Biblical inerrancy, agree with what is stated here.

    Was your real point that even assuming inerrancy the Bible is still open to interpretation? Recognizing the human reality of interpretation is not the same thing as rejecting inerrancy, but the assumption of inerrancy greatly limits the boundaries of possible interpretations. If that is what you meant, I agree.

    By Blogger Mark, at 8/26/2006 08:40:00 PM  

  • I am also in agreement with you, but I think you have something out of place. However, without knowing your definition of "innerancy" I can only judge the accuracy of what you say innerancy is not by what I understand innerancy to be.

    I also think there is a problem with #3, but probably for a different reason than Mark. The lack of belief in innerancy is not what "...opens interpretation to the full bounds of human imagination..." It's the lack of belief in an authoritative teaching body within the Church that does that.

    I could believe in the innerancy of a triginometry textbook (one that's written using metaphor, hyperbole, analogy, poetry...), but left to my own devices, I would be hard pressed to digest the knowledge and have a true understanding of trig'. I would need to have a teacher (authority) in whom I believed in order to get it.

    I like that your argument is organized like the "Summa". Is that planned, or just coincidence?


    By Blogger pyrosapien2819, at 8/27/2006 11:44:00 PM  

  • I have been reading up on this!

    I come to this subject of biblical inerrancy with an open mind (and I don't want anyone to dispute that because I know my mind better than anyone).

    Would it be of any interest or value to you if I were to list the arguments that I think you need to refute if you are to conclude that the bible is inerrant, beyond reasonable doubt (or perhaps, beyond my reasonable doubt??).*

    And could I ask a dumb question? Are you talking about just the OT, or the OT and the NT in this series?

    *Of course, I'm not sure yet of your definition of inerrancy. I'm assuming what it will be, and I'm assuming that you will be concluding that the bible is inerrant....perhaps unfairly...?

    By Blogger Ruth, at 8/28/2006 01:45:00 PM  

  • Hi, Ruth!
    While I can't answer for my husband for Mark or Pyro (I only understand about half of what they said! :-)), I can answer you! When speaking of inerrancy, we're talking about the Bible in its entirety. Every bit of it- the OT and the NT. I think it would be helpful for you to give your recommendations. They may be things that will already be included, or something he hadn't thought of that needs to be addressed. We're always open to feedback and advice. Thanks for reading and contributing!

    By Blogger mrshammer, at 8/28/2006 03:10:00 PM  

  • I'd like to expand Ruth's question a bit. Exactly what do you believe inerrant? Do all or some translations qualify or do you have to go back to the original text? I'm guessing you won't spend any time defending the version of the Bible translated into Klingon, but do you consider the King James version inerrant? What about related holy books, like the Book of Enoch or the apocryphal books in the Catholic Bible?

    My guess is you will claim there is only one very specific inerrant version of the Bible and all translations and deviations have the possibility of human fallacy introduced, but errors are small enough to not matter for everyday use.

    Pyro, but then the question becomes which church has the authority. Given that some churches claim the Bible is not inherent, or at least claim different interpretations, I'd say you are actually claiming the opposite of Hammer. (Unless you are Catholic, I guess...)

    Personally, I think the only human to ever potentially have the gift of inerrancy was Jesus himself. But it is still too soon to get into that....

    By Blogger Mark, at 8/28/2006 04:00:00 PM  

  • Mark,

    In answer to your question/statement about versions and which church..., your parenthetical supposition is correct.

    When I refer to the Bible/Sacred Scriture it is with the understanding that the Deuterocanonical (Apocryphal to some) books are included.


    By Blogger pyrosapien2819, at 8/28/2006 09:36:00 PM  

  • Deuterocanonical (Apocryphal to some)

    I just realized my term may have been insulting; sorry for that. I knew the Catholic Bible had more books than non-Catholic Bibles, did a Google search and came up with that name.

    Truth be know, the word "apocryphal" means nothing to me, though I obviously can look it up.

    Sometimes Google makes for a great intelligence/memory substitute, sometimes not so much.

    By Blogger Mark, at 8/29/2006 02:00:00 AM  

  • Hi there

    As I mentioned in an earlier comment, I have been doing a little reading on the subject of biblical inerrancy.

    For me, a convincing argument in favour of biblical inerrancy would have to refute the points made on this web-page:

    (I wonder whether that link will work)

    I'll leave it at that for now, because other arguments against inerrancy very much depend upon your definition of inerrancy.


    By Blogger Ruth, at 8/29/2006 03:55:00 AM  

  • Mark,

    I wasn't offended by the term apocryphal. I just don't use it when I'm referring to those 7 O.T. books (Tobit, Judith, Baruch, Wisdom, Sirach, 1&2 Maccabees). I wasn't sure if others whould know what I was referring to if I wrote "Deuterocanonical".

    I was trying to address two different subjects with my second post; That my viewpoint was from a Catholic's perspective, and the content of Scripture is not the same for all Christians (something you correctly pointed out in your post).

    In reading back through my post I can see that I came across defensively. I didn't mean to single you out, or make it appear that way with the "apocryphal to some" thing. By "some" I just meant all those who don't acknowledge the book's canonicity. Sorry.


    By Blogger pyrosapien2819, at 8/29/2006 09:08:00 AM  

  • Ruth,

    Thanks for that link. It has been many, many years since I accepted Jesus and at this point, almost as many since I left Christianity. These days I identify Christianity with the Creationists, the authoritarians and as the religious wing of Karl Rove, Inc.

    But I am always amazed, delighted and enlightened when I'm pointed back to the teachings of Jesus himself.

    By Blogger Mark, at 8/29/2006 02:05:00 PM  

  • Wow, 11 comments. I'll go one at a time, so there will be some name repeating. I'll split up my comments to avoid the "monster comment".

    Yes, the phrase is flawed. Whether I believe valid interpretations to be anything is not an issue in discerning the difference between the two.

    Hey, let me know more specifically what I could have done to make the post better - I tried to set out to make this one very non-controversial!

    "My real point" was not to assume anything, but to correctly delineate the differences in terms often confused when discussing inerrancy. As you concluded - inerrancy limits interpretation is the relationship.

    Nice to have you in on the discussion. A lack of belief in inerrancy limits interpretation before anything else. You are speaking of the inerrancy and authority of the magisterium, which is another subject entirely. The historical church, protestant and Catholic, has agreed with inerrancy of the Scriptures, but disagreed on the inerrancy of the magisterium and the authority of both in relation to each other. Honestly, while that would be a great discussion, it needn't be broached in this series!

    Me and St. ToA go way back. That said, it was subconscious. His method in the Summa is very effective, setting him as the Christian Philosopher to emulate, in my opinion!

    Hold off on your challenges to inerrancy until I define and establish it - ideally, most of them will have already been addressed by then! This post is set merely to draw boundries between terms - those are the points to disagree with here.

    By Blogger Hammertime, at 8/29/2006 03:28:00 PM  

  • Mark (2),
    I am using the OT and NT as accepted by the early church and officially codified by St. Athanasius, with 66 books - 27 NT and 39 OT - as the Scriptures in question. I did a whole series on Bible Translations if you want to check it out. Your guess is very close.

    You should know that I do not agree that Mark was ever a Christian and he and I have discussed it before. By the end of the series, you'll understand why we disagree. I'll look at your link after I've composed my following post and am preparing the definition post, because I'll likely have dealt with the vast majority of whatever they are - I doubt I haven't heard them before!

    Hopefully, you'll find my grasp of church history, tradition, and Catholic doctrine well beyond the folks you've discussed this kind of issue with before. God has seen fit to make me the kind of person who enjoys that stuff, perhaps for this purpose!

    By Blogger Hammertime, at 8/29/2006 03:39:00 PM  

  • Was I ever a "real" Christian? I certainly used to think I was, and not just in a "I go to church" sense. I was born again one summer back when I was jr. high aged at a day camp at Melody Land, a evangelical (church? place? I guess church) church across from Disneyland.

    However, I no longer believe there is such a thing as a "real" Christian in the same sense I used to. Thus, it is really up to others to debate whether you can truly be saved and changed, yet walk away years later.

    The irony is if I ever change my mind and go back to being a true Christian, everyone will probably agree I was one before.

    But for the record, that deep, spiritual feeling I used to call God is still there. That connection to Jesus I used to feel never went away, I just am no longer sure what it is or what to call it. (I've lately been more comfortable using the word God again, changing to question from "is there a God?" to "what is God?")

    My "problem" has never been that my heart was closed to Christ or the Church, but that my heart remained open to so many other things as well.

    By Blogger Mark, at 8/29/2006 07:01:00 PM  

  • I look forward to the rest of the series

    In The Bible: Inspired and Inerrant? I list these points made in this article:

    Inerrancy is:
    1. "a theological deduction from inspiration" - it is never claimed by the Bible itself; and

    2. "not demonstrable empirically because of:"
    -- Human finitude
    -- Human sinfulness
    -- lack of complete data


    Inerrancy applies to the autographa, not to copies or translations of Scripture. This qualification is made because we realize that errors have crept into the text during the transmission process. It is not an appeal to a "Bible which no one has ever seen or can see." Such a charge fails to take into account the nature of textual criticism and the very high degree of certainty we possess concerning the original text of Scripture.

    This explains why we chase our tails a bit about inerrancy - it is impossible to demonstrate; therefore it is one of those things we take on faith as a deduction from inspiration - which is claimed by the Bible itself.

    By Blogger JCHFleetguy, at 8/30/2006 10:02:00 AM  

  • I also must disagree with your premise that some passages in the Bible are more improtant than others. If that is true, then II Tim. 3:16 [All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness] becomes invalid. As for geneaologies, they are important to understand the larger story of God's dealing with not only Israel, but also families instead of the individualistic Christianity so prevalent in our country today.

    By Blogger Diane, at 8/30/2006 11:25:00 AM  

  • Diane,
    2 TImothy 3:16 does not say that all verses are equally important. It says that all verses are equally inspired. In a phrase I will return to repeatedly throughou this series, words mean something.

    They are all useful for those purposes, but usefulness is not importance. If I am building a model airplane, both glue and a file are useful for building it - but the glue is more important. That said, the model will be a much better product if I file off the flashes of extra plastic.

    If you were to go somewhere in which Bibles are prohibted, and you could only bring the verses you had memorized, do you think that the description of the design of the temple would crack the list? Of course not. Why? Because something about the core doctrines of Christianity is more important.

    That in no way denies, or even affects, the inspiration or usefulness of Scripture. It is important when discussing the facets of Scripture - inspiration, inerrancy, authority, interpretation, and importance - that we discern where they are different and how they relate. Otherwise we end up with some kind of argument that actually means nothing!

    Thanks for your comment! As someone whom I perceive is more "fundamentalist" than I consider myself to be, your comments will add an extra, necessary element to the discussion.

    By Blogger Hammertime, at 8/30/2006 12:28:00 PM  

  • Wow, with all these comments, I'm looking forward to the parts that we CAN'T all agree on! But as a believer in the inerrancy of the original text, I'm interested to see where you are going.

    By Blogger karl, at 8/30/2006 06:13:00 PM  

  • Sorry for coming late to the party (as it were) - I've been on holiday!

    "Someone who rejects inerrancy will interpret the Scriptures in any way to make their current thoughts and behaviors seem justified. On the other hand, someone who believes in an inerrant Bible is forced to confront a greater breadth of challenges from an uncompromising word of God.""

    Although many of your points are well made, you are wrong here, I believe. It is simply not true that mere assent to the idea of inerrancy (however you finally define it!) will somehow guard us against errors in interpretation. Nor is it true that merely disagreeing with the use of this term (or even with the arguments you use to support it) makes us interpret the Bible merely to support our own prejudices. Nor is it true that a belief in "inerrancy" somehow guarantees that we will face up to those difficult passages - I'm sure that we've both faced people who espouse "inerrancy" and yet somehow also espouse counter-biblical lifestyles (such as the right to wealth or happiness).

    It is not our assent to a certain mode of biblical interpretation (which is all that "inerrancy" is) that forces us to change our lives. The Bible challenges us only because God challenges us. It is God speaking that causes us to learn new things, to draw closer to God, to face the uncompromising Truth that is the source of the Bible as of all else.

    Having said all that, I am not (of course) prejudging what you're actually going to be saying - we may or may not agree when all's said and done! The question is whether such a belief has these irrevocable consequences.

    Looking forward to the rest!

    pax et bonum

    By Blogger John, at 9/01/2006 02:51:00 PM  

  • John,
    "Although many of your points are well made, you are wrong here, I believe."

    If that is so, you failed to show it - mostly because I never implied what you said I did! Because I am attempting to focus like a laser beam on inerrancy and avoid interpretation until it is necessary, I may have said too little.

    It is simply not true that mere assent to the idea of inerrancy (however you finally define it!) will somehow guard us against errors in interpretation. Nor is it true that merely disagreeing with the use of this term (or even with the arguments you use to support it) makes us interpret the Bible merely to support our own prejudices. Nor is it true that a belief in "inerrancy" somehow guarantees that we will face up to those difficult passages."

    I never insinuated any of that. A doctrine of inerrancy does provide a level of restriction of our interpretation, but it does not guarantee any specific interpretation, attribution of authority or importance, or proper application to our lives. You must have been projecting someone else's argument onto me! What it does remove is the position that "Paul was wrong" or "My God would never have said/done that".

    The question is whether such a belief has these irrevocable consequences.

    As we have seen, I never intended such a position, nor do I hold to it. Those who do obviously confuse the terms we've delineated here!

    By Blogger Hammertime, at 9/03/2006 11:33:00 PM  

  • Fair enough then, Hammer :-) Although I was responding to these sentences, which I quoted:
    "Someone who rejects inerrancy will interpret the Scriptures in any way to make their current thoughts and behaviors seem justified. On the other hand, someone who believes in an inerrant Bible is forced to confront a greater breadth of challenges from an uncompromising word of God."

    This does say that (a) not assenting to inerrancy guarantees that we will simply project ourselves onto Scripture and (b) that assenting to inerrancy guarantees that we will face up to a greater breadth of challenges. Both of those positions I would disagree with. For example, an inerrantist in a church that only cycles through the pastor's favourite dozen passages (a far too common occurrence) will face up to far fewer biblical challenges than a non-inerrantist who attends a church that follows a lectionary. We will only face up to challenges if we read them! And statement (a) is highly suspect, ISTM, although until I know precisely what you mean by "inerrancy", I can't be sure (even then, you'd pretty much have to define belief in inerrancy as nothing more than allowing Scripture to challenge us). Certainly, the ability to rationalise current beliefs is not limited to any one faction of the church.

    And, in the final analysis, I think that you may be placing too much emphasis on our own attitude to Scripture, and not enough on God speaking. A belief in inerrancy does not guarantee that God will speak to us - and nor does disbelief in it prohibit God from speaking. However, again, we'll have to see how the series pans out :-)

    pax et bonum

    By Blogger John, at 9/04/2006 03:52:00 AM  

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