When I was a kid, my parents had this amazing blue recliner. It was the most comfortable seat in the house, and I loved it. The chair had some cosmetic flaws - it had a few tears and stains, and it squeaked a bit as you rocked. As my mother would say, the flaws “added character.” But the chair was completely sturdy and it did what it was intended to do perfectly.
For most conservative evangelicals, the concept of biblical inerrancy - the entire, factual accuracy of the Bible - is foundational to faith. The idea of an “errant” Bible is a scary thought. I was discussing this with a friend of mine the other day, and he humbly expressed his thoughts like this:
I think that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is a sort of gatekeeper to all sorts of potential false teachings and outright heresies. Now, it doesn't at all mean that someone who doesn't hold to biblical inerrancy IS heretical or believes a bunch of completely unsound things, but I do think there's a slippery slope, and that it becomes much more difficult to know where to stop if you aren't holding to the inerrancy of Scripture.
In my experience, this is an entirely common approach to the discussion. I was raised in a mix of conservative independent Baptist and Southern Baptist churches - this is the exact same perspective that I held for many years.
The logic goes like this: If one piece of the Bible is false, then where does it end? If we accept any errors in the Bible, then the entire Bible is in doubt. If the Bible is wrong, that would make God a liar - since he is most definitely not a liar, the Bible must be inerrant.
My goal in this post is not to convince anyone one way or the other about biblical inerrancy. Not only would I fail at that, but it would damage the Christian faith. Instead, I simply want us to better understand what people mean when they deny an inerrant Bible.
First, let’s take a look at what “biblical inerrancy” means.
There is actually a wide range of ways to define inerrancy, but whenever I hear people talking about it, they are almost always referring to strict inerrancy, a doctrine formalized in 1975 by The Chicago Statements on Inerrancy and Hermeneutics. For the sake of brevity, I won’t publish the entire statement, but here is the part that seems to be the key (emphasis mine):
Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives. The authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded, or made relative to a view of truth contrary to the Bible’s own; and such lapses bring serious loss to both the individual and the Church.
Essentially, the thought is that each word of the Bible was verbally dictated by God to the human author that put pen to paper. Each story, song, proverb, admonition, and rebuke is completely accurate in terms of religious, historical, scientific, or any other basis as intended by the (human) author. As the statement further explains later, “history must be treated as history, poetry as poetry, hyperbole and metaphor as hyperbole and metaphor, generalization and approximation as what they are, and so forth.”
The Chicago Statements admits that reading the Bible, just like reading anything else, requires some level of interpretation - it requires understanding the author’s intent for a particular passage. What it doesn't discuss, though, is the method by which we determine how each section of Scripture was intended.
Sometimes this distinction is obvious. It’s easy enough to deduce that the Psalms are meant to be poetry and that 1 Kings is supposed to be history. Sometimes, though, the author’s intent is unclear. Is Job supposed to be read as a history lesson or as an allegory? There are many passages where the distinction between descriptive text (relating to a specific culture and context) and prescriptive text (pertaining to churches and Christians across all cultures and contexts) becomes quite muddy.
For example, in 1 Corinthians 11:5-6, Christians generally accept that the commands were written specifically to that culture and don’t apply to us today; in contrast, just a couple of chapters later, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is taken to mean that even in our culture today, women are not allowed to have positions of authority in the church. How do we know that Paul meant one to be culturally relative and the other to be universal?
The doctrine of strict inerrancy doesn't address these questions - it just assumes that the answers are explicitly obvious from within Scripture.
Soteriology is the study of salvation. Soteriological inerrancy, then, is inerrancy in every part of the Bible that pertains to salvation, and this is the method of Scriptural interpretation that is held to by a majority of Christian denominations. Here are a few of them:
- Church of the Nazarene
- United Methodist Church
- Presbyterian USA
- American Baptist Churches
- United Church of Christ
- Disciples of Christ
- and many others
So what does soteriological inerrancy say?
Here is the United Methodist Church’s statement on the Bible, taken from their Confession of Faith:
We believe the Holy Bible, Old and New Testaments, reveals the Word of God so far as it is necessary for our salvation. It is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice. Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith nor is it to be taught as essential to salvation. (Article IV)
The Articles of Faith from the Church of the Nazarene says largely the same thing.
In these definitions, it is important to note that they question neither the authority nor the inspiration of Scripture. They don’t say that God has lied to us or that we can’t trust what the Bible tells us. Rather, they affirm that the Bible is our guide through life and the foundation for our understanding of our Father and his plan for us.
Within soteriological inerrancy, the authority of Scripture is in no way dependent on strict inerrancy. Millions of Christians all over the world hold firm to the idea that the Bible is true, authoritative, and sufficient, without needing to believe that every detail contained within it is historically and scientifically accurate. This view has been around for as long as the Christian faith itself, and the Christians that follow it have yet to venture down the "slippery slope" into heretical abandon.
Indeed, no matter where you stand on inerrancy, Christians believe that Scripture is authoritative not because it is completely inerrant, but because it is God-breathed.
In his article, “A Layman’s Historical Guide to the Inerrancy Debate,” William B. Evans (himself a Reformed proponent of inerrancy) reminds us that:
The Bible's authority flows from its divine origin. ... The Bible is not authoritative because of the sublime subject matter it contains, or because it is infallibly accurate (though it is that). It is authoritative because of its divine origin.
When we claim that a strictly inerrant view of Scripture is necessary to Christian faith, we risk placing Scripture in the position of God himself. We must remember that our worship is for God - not for the message that he’s given us.
The Root of the Issue
I myself have been on both sides of this debate, and I've had deep discussions with a lot of people that come at it from all different angles. This is certainly not to say that I have perfect knowledge on inerrancy, but I feel like I have a somewhat balanced perspective.
From what I've seen, the heart of the disagreement comes down - in practical application - to a broad statement on biblical interpretation.
Strict inerrantists value the Bible as a historical account and scientific manual as much as they value the Bible as a spiritual guidebook and God's Word for our lives.
Soteriological inerrantists, on the other hand, say that God's Word, as a plenary text, was written to tell us the story of God's interaction with humanity and as a guide for our lives. The text’s historical and scientific value is taken as a bonus. This line of thought falls directly in line with my personal understanding of 2 Timothy 3:16-17. In this passage, Paul doesn't tell us that Scripture is flawless in a historical or scientific context - he says that it is profitable and authoritative in our lives as we strive to be made complete in Christ.
But there has to be more to the disagreement than that.
Biblical inerrancy is a huge issue, and there’s no way that we can tackle it all here. And really, my goal for this post isn’t to address the issues. I simply want to help you see that those who deny biblical inerrancy (or “strict inerrancy,” as that is the term’s connotation) aren't in danger of losing their souls or sliding down a slippery slope of hopelessness.
We must remember that we all worship the same God and we have all been saved by the same Christ. The scarlet thread of God’s love for a broken world is perfect in a way that only he could have authored.
For further reading, I’d encourage you to read the full statements of faith that I've linked to throughout this article - each link details the Scriptural support for its particular perspective.
In addition, here are a some other excellent resources:
- “Further thoughts on why ‘inerrancy’ is problematic” by Roger E. Olson
- “Nazarenes Reject Strict Inerrancy” by Thomas Jay Oord
- “Nazarenes, Calvinists, and the Authority of Scripture” by William B. Evans
- “The Modern Inerrancy Debate” by Dennis Bratcher
- “A Layman’s Historical Guide to the Inerrancy Debate” by William B. Evans