Yesterday I began a short series on the inerrancy of Scripture. This series is an indirect response to the questions, concerns and doubts about inerrancy raised by Michael Spencer and affirmed by many others at his personal site and at Boars Head Tavern. One of my primary concerns was that there was so much discussion based on so few concrete definitions. When I began to tackle this doctrine, I found that the doctrines of Scripture cannot be neatly seperated, 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 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 a few examples of 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 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.
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, geo-centric language.
Another way this happens in the Bible is with the use of numbers. Allow me to provide an example. A few weeks ago a friend was given some tickets to see the Toronto Rock, our local professional lacrosse team. Never having attended such a game before, I had no idea what to expect. 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 guage to know how many people attend such games.
In the same vein, consider measurements. As many of you know, I live in Toronto, Ontario and my family lives in 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 15 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 and so on, and 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. 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 15 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 so 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 or 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. My Greek is not what it once was, but I believe these irregularities show up especially in Revelation. But once more, the issue of inerrancy is not precision but truthfulness.
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, as Michael Spencer and others have, without 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 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” (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, page 90). 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. It is important to note that this definition does not apply to the transmission of Scripture through the ages and the translation into other languages. We affirm that only the original autographs are inerrant. This definition is based on the clear teaching of Scripture, several passages of which I presented yesterday, 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. Tomorrow, in what I anticipate will be the final installment in this series, we will turn to common objections and to the problems that may arise if this doctrine is denied.