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What Does "Inerrant" Mean?
January 12, 2008
Yesterday I began a short series on the inerrancy of Scripture, looking at whether there are errors and contradictions in the Bible. You can read the first article and the response to it here: Are There Errors in the Bible?. When I first began to develop and understanding of this doctrine, I found that the doctrines of Scripture cannot be neatly separated, one from the other, for they are intertwined and interrelated. So in the first article I wrote about inspiration, canon, transmission and authority. Today I will turn to inerrancy, first explaining what it is not (often a good place to begin, I find) and then providing a working definition.
What Inerrancy Is Not
I find it is often useful to define what a term does not mean before I learn what it does mean, and I will do that with inerrancy. So let’s look at four statements dealing with what inerrancy does not entail. I should note that there is no authoritative body to which we can appeal to define what inerrancy means, for it is not a term that is neatly defined in Scripture. Thus I am presenting information consistent with the way it has been defined by scholars who have pursued the study of this doctrine over the past century and who have drawn what they believe from the Bible.
First, inerrancy does not preclude the use of ordinary language. A clear example of this in the Bible is where it speaks of the sun rising. We know that the sun does not rise at all but that the earth rotates to bring the sun into view. However, we can be consistent in our belief in the inerrancy of Scripture despite this type of ordinary, human, geocentric language (the kind of language we continue to use today).
Another way this happens in the Bible is with the use of numbers. Some time ago a friend was given some tickets to see the Toronto Rock, our local professional lacrosse team, and asked me to go along with him. Never having attended such a game before, I had no idea what to expect. I found that I thoroughly enjoyed the sport and was amazed at how many people were there to cheer on the team. At some point there was an official announcement of that evening’s attendance and I made a rough mental note of it. Later, after I got home, my wife asked how many people were at the game and I told her “10,000.” Now the actual number may have been closer to 10,243 or 9,678, but yet I had not told her a lie. My wife was clearly not interested in an exact number, but rather a useful gauge to know how many people attend such games. So when the Bible says that Jesus feed 5,000 people with just a few loaves and fish, He may have actually fed 4,998. Yet the Bible would still be inerrant when it says 5,000.
In the same vein, consider measurements. As many of you know, I live in Toronto, Ontario and my family lives near Atlanta, Georgia. When I make the long drive to visit them, people sometimes ask me how long the journey takes and I tell them it takes me 14 hours. Or they may ask me what the distance is, and I’ll tell them 900 miles. In reality the drive time varies every time we do it based on traffic, weather, the behavior of children, the anger of the border guards, the health of my car, and any other number of factors. In reality the distance, according to Mapquest, is 931.96 miles. And while we are clarifying, both my parents and I live in suburbs of our respective cities and I have offered Toronto and Atlanta simply because people generally know the locations of big cities but not smaller towns and suburbs. And I don’t drive a car, but a van. But have I lied in any of this? Is any of this truly contrary to fact or have I been inerrant in what I have said? Here is the crux of the matter and this is particularly important to our discussion: Inerrancy speaks of truthfulness, not the degree of precision with which events are reported. When I say that I drive 14 hours and 900 miles to get from Toronto to Atlanta, I have not lied. I have been truthful, but not perfectly precise. This is consistent with inerrancy.
Second, inerrancy does not preclude the use of loose and free quotations. Wayne Grudem makes a critical distinction between our culture and the New Testament Greek culture when it came to reporting the words of another person. In our culture we consider it a terrible sin to misquote another person; we believe that precision in quoting a person’s exact words is of tantamount importance. The Greek language, at the time the New Testament was written, had no quotation marks and really no similar construct. What was considered of utmost importance was to accurately represent the content of what a person said. There was no expectation that a writer needed to transcribe the speaker’s exact words when quoting him. Thus the Bible is inerrant if it accurately and truthfully describes the content of what a speaker said. Whether the actual words Jesus spoke are “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life,” or “I am The Truth, the Way and the Life,” the Bible is still inerrant in how it transcribed these words, for the content remains intact.
Third, the Bible can be inerrant even if it contains unusual grammatical constructions. It is commonly known that there are various writing skills represented in the Scripture. Some authors were stylistically excellent while others were much more rough and common in their style. Sometimes this means the writers did not follow the accepted rules of grammar or used stylistic irregularities. Once more, the issue of inerrancy is not precision but truthfulness.
Fourth, Scripture is inerrant only in its original autographs. It is critical to note that, strictly speaking, inerrancy does not apply to the transmission of Scripture through the ages and its translation into other languages. We affirm that only the original autographs, or original manuscripts, are inerrant. What we enjoy today is very good translations of very accurate reconstructions of the biblical text. We do not have any of the original documents—none of Paul’s original letters and none of the actual gospels written by the hands of the Apostles have survived. Yet through the science of textual criticism we have very accurate reconstructions of those texts and through translators we have excellent translations of them. So while we do not affirm inerrancy for any particular English translation of Scripture, we do have great confidence in the best translations available to us.
The impetus for this short series was a series of questions regarding so-called errors and contradictions in the Bible. Keep these four points in mind as you’ll see in our next article just how many of these errors are demolished simply by a proper understanding of inerrancy.
A Working Definition
Now that we know what we should not expect in inerrancy, let’s attempt to define it. I was surprised to find, as I consulted many books on this issue, that very few clearly and concisely defined inerrancy. Most use the term without defining it (or without thoroughly or accurately defining it). For example, James Boice, in Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace writes several pages on the topic, but provides no definition. In Scripture Alone, James White refers to the Council on Biblical Inerrancy and the desire of the participants to create a “concise statement on the meaning and importance of inerrancy” (page 68). He turns to and provides commentary on the council’s definition, which may be precise by theological standards, but still extends to 24 articles. Nowhere does he provide a concise definition. Of the few definitions or attempts at definition that I found, Wayne Grudem’s definition in his Systematic Theology seemed most clear. Here is a solid working definition of inerrancy: “The inerrancy of Scripture means that Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact.” It is that simple. So what we affirm in this definition, is that a perfect God moved human authors, by His Spirit, to perfectly transcribe what He wanted to communicate. This definition is based on the clear teaching of Scripture, several passages of which I presented in the previous article, as well as the character of God. If God is unable to lie and if he inspired Scripture, it must have been completely consistent with fact at the moment of transcription.
At this point we have defined our terms and indicated what we mean and what we do not mean by inerrancy. In the third (and final, I believe) installment in this series, we will turn to common objections and to the problems that may arise if this doctrine is denied. And then I’ll provide some thoughts on how to respond to those who are so eager to pull out the lists of supposed errors and contradictions.