Is Inerrancy an Essential Doctrine in Christianity?


Preface

First, the intent of this article is not to defend scripture from an apologetic[1] perspective. I don’t intend to appeal to a logical line of reasoning in order to make my case. If you're interested in that you can read another article I wrote on the trustworthiness of scripture. Nor is this article intended for people who are completely skeptical of scripture as God’s word. This article attempts to study how scripture explains its own view of itself. I plan on addressing the dangerous and spiritually detrimental thought that the Bible isn’t inerrant. I write this article as a sort of sounding alarm for the church in America. Understanding that scripture is without error is fundamental to the Christian faith. It is tied to how we perceive God. It is tied to how knowable and trustworthy He is. Admittedly this is circular reasoning or at least a presuppositional argument. But this is the place where this article must start. I don’t intend to say that the belief of the inerrancy of scripture isn’t rational, or worse than a rational line of reasoning cannot be made. There have been many books published that cover this well[2]. It is from those authors' foundations that I attempt to build on, to help further God’s kingdom. A second note I want to make is that this article can seem like it has a chip on its shoulder, or a score it's trying to settle. The reason for this is because of the overwhelming progressive movement in Christian circles. This article has had to start on the defense. Unfortunately, Christianity has seriously allowed voices in its; churches, schools, and denominations, to hold to a view of scripture that can undermine people’s belief. The destination this takes us is a bleak one. This is not to villainize people, but rather to express my genuine fear for the future of the church in America. Third, I hope this article helps the reader connect to God more deeply. It could bring me no greater joy than to aid in your spiritual formation. For those of you who are on the fence about believing in inerrancy, I hope and pray that you will see scripture as - I believe - God sees it. Fourth, I pray that I would be guided by God in this process, and it is out of love for my neighbor that I write. As the Apostle Paul rebuked Peter[3], I intend to rebuke all pastors, teachers, professors, and people who don’t believe that God’s revelation to us - His very word - is without error. We are commanded to confront false teaching when we see it in order - contrary to most evangelicals - to promote unity. The argument I attempt to convey is one that I am convinced of, on the basis that the inerrancy of scripture is how God intoned for us to see His word. It isn’t the easiest view to hold. It isn’t the most popular either. But I believe it is the only sensible, and it is most consistent way for us to read God’s word.

A Prayer

Father, of all truth and knowledge, guide me as I write. Help me to see your truth and how you meant for us to understand your word. Place them in our hearts. Let us love them. Let us love you. Amen.


Is Inerrancy an Essential Doctrine in Christianity?

“[The Bible] it's not God's perspective, it's their's [the authors],”

former pastor and author Rob Bell writes in his book, “What is the Bible.” [4]When Christians discuss the Bible, one issue has been the historic Christian belief of inerrancy. Liberal Christianity - simplistically - would champion that the Bible contains errors and isn’t fully true. My view - and what I believe the historic Christian view of scripture is - is that abandoning inerrancy is so theologically dangerous, that it means abandoning evangelical Christianity.

Is inerrancy an essential doctrine in Christianity? This is the question that must be answered. If yes, it will change how Evangelicals see the Christian faith. And if the answer is no, then we must seek to find out how important this doctrine is.

The term “evangelical” is widely misused today. Evangelicals are a group of Protestant Christians who affirm five core things: the authority of scripture,[5] [6] the essential nature of the new birth,[7] [8] the redeeming work of Christ,[9] [10]that the gospel needs to be shared with all people,[11] [12] and the church is a group of people who are marked with the Holy Spirit.[13] [14] The word evangelical actually comes from the Greek word for gospel, “euangelion.”[15]

This discussion isn’t new. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI) felt the need to define inerrancy in 1978. Already - even in the late 70s - Evangelical Christianity saw the need to create a standard for orthodoxy when it comes to how we should interpret scripture.

The CSBI and its five points give the clearest definition of inerrancy. They are essential to understanding this article (please click this link to read more about the CSBI). The CSBI became a standard threshold for evangelicals. While their definition is one I cannot argue - and one I wholly submit to - I believe we need a brief definition of inerrancy.

Inerrancy means that the Bible (or Scripture), in its original autograph (or the original literature written by the men who God inspired to write) does not contain any errors and that the whole Bible is from God who is Himself truth.[16]

What is an error?

If we are going to claim the Bible is without error, then we first must ask what an error is. How do we understand errors today? And what claims are made about scripture’s alleged errors? In 1976 Dr. William LaSor from Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate Learning, ordained in the United Presbyterian Church, who earned six degrees, ranging from chemistry to Oriental languages and literature, charges that there are numerical discrepancies between 2 Samuel 10:18[17]and 1 Chronicles 19:18.[18] The basis of his argument is the author of Chronicles exaggerated the numbers of soldiers to enhance the glory of Israel.[19] What LaSor fails - or doesn’t take seriously - is this is a matter of discrepancy of a decimal point. To best understand the argument we have to understand the method of how early manuscripts were transmitted and copied. Before the printing press in 1440, all writing was copied by hand. This lends itself to discrepancies like the one LaSor sites as an example of an error in scripture.[20] It would have been easy while one scribe was copying from an old, worn out, or smudged manuscript, that he would have missed one zero. This isn’t an error in the original autograph, but a “clerical error.”

When we see these kinds of criticisms in modern scholarship we are forced to ask ourselves, “what is an error?” Does error mean precision? John Frame; a founding member of, and professor at Westminster Theological Seminary California, an emeritus faculty member at Reformed Theological Seminary, and ordained in the Presbyterian Church of America, states in his chapter “The Inerrancy of Scripture” in his book, The Doctrine of the Word of God, that precision and truth are often two ideas that many people confuse to mean the same thing. He argues - as do I - that they cannot mean the same thing.[21] Precision is typically used in mathematical and scientific fields of study. While textual criticism is a scientific study, ancient literature is not viewed on its scientific reliability. The Bible isn’t a science or math textbook, it is history, and therefore it should be scrutinized as such. When we look at other ancient - and even contemporary - historical accounts, we don’t see a thirst for precision that the Bible often receives. An example of this would be an article on the halftime show at the 2020 Super Bowl. The author says, “Attendance at Hard Rock Stadium was just over 62,000…”[22] When in actuality the attendance was 62,417 fans.[23] Was the first author wrong or was his statement erroneous? No. Was it maximally precise? No, but it doesn’t need to be. No one would see that and wrote the South Florida Sun-Sentinel to tell them they had published a false fact. When it comes to inerrancy, scripture doesn’t need to be maximally precise to be truthful.

This perspective helps us better understand passages like Mark 1:5, which says, “And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”[24]No critical reader would believe that John Mark - the author - truly means that literally, every last person from Judea and Jerusalem was with John the Baptist. Scripture - while not claiming to be maximally precise - is also not claiming that it cannot use metaphors, anecdotes, and hyperbole. Anyone who would point to this passage as a claim that scripture is not inerrant is being hyper-literal. And I would challenge them to use this same metric when they write, speak, or measure any quantity in boatloads. Just like no one expects modern reporters to be maximally precise, the Bible’s truthfulness doesn’t come from its ability to be maximally precise.

I introduce Peter Enns

In an article published by the Bulletin for Biblical Research, “The ‘Moveable Well’ in 1 Corinthians 10:4: An Extrabiblical Tradition in an Apostolic Text,” Peter Enns, a former professor of Old Testament and Biblical hermeneutics, at Westminster Theological Seminary[25] gives his proverbial slam dunk for his view of the Bible when he contends, that when the Apostle Paul states in 1 Corinthians 10:4 “and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ,”[26] showing that the rock that Paul talks about, is a literal rock that moved with them throughout their time in the wilderness. This assumption is based on what he calls “a commonly accepted Jewish tradition.”[27] Enns believes, that Paul really believed it was a moving well. Enns goes as far as to say:

After all, if at the very climax of redemptive history, the Holy Spirit can do no better than communicate the supreme Good News through pedestrian and uninspired Jewish legends, in what sense can we claim that the New Testament revelation is special, distinct, and unique? The question, however, can be put on its head: on what basis ought we to assume that Paul’s understanding of the Old Testament was unique? To put it another way, is there anything about the nature of God’s revelation itself that necessarily demands its uniqueness over against the environment the revelation is given?[28]

What Enns - wrongly - affirms here, is that Paul and other New Testament authors believed in lies about what happened in the Old Testament and have interpreted Christ through them. Enns would affirm that the New Testament is authoritative even though these writers believed in myths or legends about the Old Testament.[29] This is an understanding of scripture that I cannot subscribe to. I would go as far as to say, this kind of view of Scripture leaves the reader unable to stand on any solid doctrine. God is a God of truth and wouldn’t use false myths about His own word to communicate with contemporary culture.

I - and many conservative scholars - don’t believe that Enns is correct in understanding 1 Corinthians 10:4. I believe that what Paul is doing is the biblical-theological exegesis of Exodus 14-17, with the understanding of Psalm 78:14-20. Fortunately, Enns’ attempt at a slam dunk has been blocked by careful hermeneutics.

When looking at how trustworthy a text is, considering its genre is one of the fundamental steps. Too often the Bible is criticized as if it were a scientific text. When in reality, it is a historical text.

The bible is telling a story, the greatest love story of a God and His people, who He loves so dearly He would - Himself - die to restore and redeem them.

The nature of historical works is not to be able to be replicated and studied under controlled environments. The nature of historical works is to tell what happened as it happened, occasionally explain what happened, and/or tell how the writer felt about what happened.

Red Letter Christians

Tony Campolo, and many other leaders[30] in the progressive Christian movement[31], have championed an idea called “red letter theology.” In this - relatively new - theological position[32], the belief is that the words of Jesus are most important. More important than the rest of the Bible. Some scholars would call this a cannon within the cannon. With this in mind, it would be important to figure out what Jesus’ view of scripture is. Using the red letter lens of the Bible, the doctrine of inerrancy becomes clearer, to the detriment of many people in the progressive Christian movement who are the loudest critics of inerrancy. While there have been chapters and books written on this very point, I would like to give a general summation of the orthodox view of scripture that Jesus presents. We see - in the great commandment - Jesus says this profound statement,

And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”[33]

Unfortunately, these verses are commonly understood - both on individual's interpretations, and unfaithful exegesis from the pulpits - to mean that loving God and loving others makes the rest of the Bible irrelevant. This is not the case that Jesus was trying to make, nor would this have been what the first-century audience would have understood. If Jesus were trying to make that point He wouldn’t have said, “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”[34] Jesus didn’t say this to nullify scripture, but rather to give more weight to its existence. God’s law is not a set of rules He expects us to obey with perfection. God’s laws are a reflection of who He is. And because we are sinful we cannot become like Him in His perfection. God’s laws are meant for us to see how sinful we are and how pure and holy He is.

What Jesus meant in Matthew 22:37-40, is that you actually cannot keep the law. No person for one moment has loved God with all his heart, soul, or mind for even a fraction of a second. And try to keep the second part. Try it! After one hour of attempting it, you will realize that you are utterly selfish and cannot love others as you love yourself.

It is out of an unbiblical western view that we believe we should be faultless. This is why we have bent scripture to accommodate ourselves, rather than submitting, confessing, and repenting when we see our sin by it.

Authority...not for me!

We inherently don’t want to see ourselves as being wrong. In her book Insight, Tasha Eurich argues, “when we don’t have a clear understanding of who we are, we tend to make choices that aren’t in our best interest.”[35] When we don’t see ourselves as people who day after day sin - do wrong things against other people, and more importantly God - we will continue to make bad choices that help us cover up the feeling that we haven’t done something wrong. We naturally feel the urge to cover up - or justify - our wrongs. An entire wave of anti-judgmental sentiment has swept American culture.

The reason we hate judgment is that we know we are guilty.[36]

John Calvin, a 15th-century Protestant Reformer, wrote, “The authority of scripture derived not from men, but from the Spirit of God.”[37] What John Calvin - correctly - states is that scripture cannot be changed or diminished by men because they don’t have the power to change God’s own words. This is important for us to understand in light of what Matthew 22:37-40 says. God set a standard for us that is not achievable. Not so we would need antidepressants, but so we would see our need for saving. Because the progressive Christian movement has abandoned the idea of inerrancy, and who’s cardinal sin seems to be legalism. They see this passage in Matthew and say they can be sinless. They then diminish sin by misinterpreting this passage to mean something other than it intends to and miss the beauty of what Jesus came to accomplish. Jesus is calling us to become poor in spirit. He desires that we would realize our dependence on Him, not our independence from the rest of His word.

The heart of those who emigrate from inerrancy is the belief in the natural over the supernatural. Usually, this is directed at miracles, those who have fled inerrancy typically come to a point where they trust their own perception of the world over trusting God, and His word.

Scripture defines scripture

The last and most critical piece of evidence I bring to defend the inerrancy of scripture is scripture itself. The Apostle Paul writes, in his second letter to Timothy, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”[38] John Calvin, a Protestant reformer, makes this comment on 2 Timothy 3:16, “ This is a principle which distinguishes our religion from all others, that we know that God hath spoken to us, and are fully convinced that the prophets did not speak at their own suggestion,”[39] All of Scripture (the Bible), is from God Himself. And breathed out by God, therefore God is unequivocally the source and origin of everything that is in the Bible.[40] Another way to describe this is called dual authorship of scripture. This means that God is the source of the writing, while at the same time human authors wrote in their own distinct and unique style.[41]

Here lies the danger for the progressive christian movement, and the leaders within it. Denying that scripture is without error, or positively asserting that Scripture contains errors, says something about its source. For theologians - like N.T. Wright - to claim that “we have the bible God wanted us to have,”[42] without affirming inerrancy, cataclysmically buts heads with 2 Timothy 3:16. If God gave us the Bible we ought to have, then why would He claim that it is breathed out by Himself? Essentially, why would God claim to have such a close connection to the Bible, yet allow it to contain errors? The answer is He wouldn’t. I can say that with certainty I do because, God cannot lie, He cannot change, He cannot be anything other than the truth.[43] Those who argue against inerrancy are faced with a dark conclusion. God must not be truthful.

Conclusion

Is inerrancy essential? Maybe. It is possible for people to obtain salvation and not believe in the CSBI. People can be ignorant of inerrancy and believe. But denying inerrancy is extremely dangerous. When we deny inerrancy we actually change how we see God. I will leave you with two questions.

Do God’s words reflect His character?
Is God capable of saying or doing anything that isn’t true?




[1] When I say apologetics, I mean it in the classical sense. Classical apologists attempt to address unbelievers and their objections to Christianity with fundamental, undeniable truths as the starting point. [2] There are also a couple of books that do this poorly. So, you have to be smart with who and what you read. [3] Galatians 2:11-14 [4] Bell, Rob. What Is the Bible?: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel about Everything. (New York, NY: HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2019) [5]D. Jeffrey Bingham, Pocket History of the Church, The IVP Pocket Reference Series (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2002), 162. [6] 2 Timothy 3:16 [7] D. Jeffrey Bingham, 162. [8] John 3:3 [9] D. Jeffrey Bingham, 162. [10] Ephesians 1:7 [11] D. Jeffrey Bingham, 162. [12] Matthew 28:16-20 [13] D. Jeffrey Bingham, 162. [14] Ephesians 1:13-14 [15] Stanley Grenz, David Guretzki, and Cherith Fee Nordling, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 48. [16] John 14:6 “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” [17] “And the Syrians fled before Israel, and David killed of the Syrians the men of 700 chariots, and 40,000 horsemen, and wounded Shobach the commander of their army so that he died there.” [18] “And the Syrians fled before Israel, and David killed of the Syrians the men of 7,000 chariots and 40,000-foot soldiers, and put to death also Shophach the commander of their army.” [19] Geisler, Norman L., and Gleason L Archer. Inerrancy. (1st ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981) 60-61. [20] Geisler, Norman L., and Gleason L Archer. 60 [21] Frame, John M. The Doctrine of the Word of God. (1st ed. Vol. 4. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2010) [22] Crandell, Ben. “Jennifer Lopez, Shakira Bring the Heat to Super Bowl 2020 Halftime.” (sun. South Florida Sun-Sentinel, February 3, 2020. https://www.sun-sentinel.com/sports/super-bowl/fl-et-super-bowl-half-time-show-20200203-kqkt2cmsjfhzpb7zokzv4m6qai-story.html.) [23]“Super Bowl History: The Football Database.” FootballDB.com. (Accessed March 22, 2020. https://www.footballdb.com/seasons/super-bowls.html.) [24] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016.) Mk 1:5 [25] Enns, Peter. “About Pete Enns The Bible for Normal People Podcast.” Pete Enns. Accessed March 22, 2020. https://peteenns.com/about/ [26] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Co 10:4. [27] Peter E. Enns, "The 'Moveable Well' in 1 Cor 10:4: An Extrabiblical Tradition in an Apostolic Text," (Bulletin for Biblical Research 6, 1996) 23-38 [28] Peter E. Enns, 35. (My italics added) [29] Beale, Gregory K. The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism: Responding to New Challenges to Biblical Authority. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008) 97-98. [30] Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine; Father Richard Rohr, a well-known Catholic writer and speaker; Brian McLaren, a leader of the emergent church movement; the Rev. Dr. Cheryl J. Sanders, a prominent African-American pastor; and the Rev. Noel Castellanos, a strong voice in the Hispanic community. Campolo, Tony. “What's a 'Red-Letter Christian'?” (Beliefnet. Beliefnet Beliefnet is a lifestyle website providing feature editorial content around the topics of inspiration, spirituality, health, wellness, love and family, news and entertainment., June 30, 2016. https://www.beliefnet.com/faiths/christianity/2006/02/whats-a-red-letter-christian.aspx.) [31] The progressive Christian movement is a term I use to describe a movement that has primarily abandoned most of orthodox Christianity. This term is also one that is interchangeable with, the emerging church movement, progressive Christianity, or liberal Christianity. [32] This theological position has also turned into a sort of political position in the “emerging church” [33] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version, Mt 22:37–40. [34] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version, Mt 5:18. [35] Eurich, Tasha. Insight: Why Were Not as Self-Aware as We Think, and How Seeing Ourselves Clearly Helps Us Succeed at Work and in Life. (New York: Crown Business, 2017.) [36] Romans 3:23 [37] Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Translated by Henry Beveridge. Vol. 1. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983) 68. [38] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version, 2 Ti 3:16. [39] John Calvin and William Pringle, Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 248–249. [40] R. C. Sproul, Can I Trust the Bible?, vol. 2, The Crucial Questions Series (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust: A Division of Ligonier Ministries, 2017), 18. Sproul notes an interesting point when it comes to the idea of God-breathed. He states that the Greek word theopneustos (the word we get God breathed from) is talking about the idea of God breathing out and not in (expiration v.s. inspiration). So he argues that instead of calling scripture inspiration we should call it the “expiration of God.” [41] Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1999), 129. [42] Nieuwhof, Carey, and N.T. Wright. “Carey Nieuwhof.” (Carey Nieuwhof (blog). Carey Nieuwhof Leadership Network, November 12, 2019. https://careynieuwhof.com/episode300/.) [43] John - I am the way the truth and the life.

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