Recent publication of a book exploring Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy has got me thinking again about this topic.
Readers of Walking With Giants will know that I do not subscribe to a formal doctrine of inerrancy. I have outlined my reasons for this, and these include:-
Inerrancy is an inappropriate term. It is not appropriate for the very different kinds of literature we find in the Bible. It is easy to see what it would mean for a telephone directory to be regarded as ‘inerrant’, but not a psalm.
Inerrancy is too ‘stretchy’ a term. It is not simply that the Bible can be regarded either as ‘inerrant’ only in matters relating to salvation (limited inerrancy) or as ‘inerrant’ in everything that it teaches or affirms. It is also that any doctrine of inerrancy ends up, as it has been said, being killed by a thousand qualifications.
Inerrancy focuses attention in the wrong places. It focuses the attention of apologist and critic alike too much on the minutiae of Scripture, whereas they should be concentrating on the overall trustworthiness, the main storyline, and the key doctrines of the Bible.
Inerrancy skews interpretation. Because many inerrantists want to affirm that the Bible is ‘true’ in all matters of science, they must perform exegetical gymnastics in order to make this work. Because they want to affirm that the Bible is ‘true’ in all its historical details, they may close off interpretations that suggest that the story of Jonah, for example, is more parable than biography.
Inerrancy closes down discussion and debate. It does so precisely at the points where our present state of knowledge is incomplete. Faced with an unresolved apparent discrepancy in the Bible, the inerrantist will have to say, ‘I don’t know how to resolve this, but I do know that there isn’t an error here.’
Inerrancy is divisive. Of course, faithful Christians cannot avoid conflict at all costs. But not everything is equally worth fighting about. Inerrancy, having become for Norman Giesler and some others the distinguishing mark of evangelical identity, is used too often as a key criterion for hiring and firing scholars and pastors. (I am relieved to say that this is less the case here in the UK than in the US.)
Despite reservations such as the ones I have just outlined, I find that I have never acknowledged a single ‘error’ in the Bible. I find it to be an extraordinary witnesses to the saving works of God in Christ. I find it to be so generally reliable in matters of history that I have a high level of confidence (but not the absolute certainty of the inerrantist) that even the most obstinate historical problem is potentially resolvable. I’m perfectly happy digging away at the various apparent discrepancies, looking for solutions that are at least plausible. But I’m happier than most inerrantists seem to be to say, “I just don’t know.”
Yes, I know that this approach can look like a ‘slippery slope’. I haven’t forgotten that Bart Ehrman claims that his road from conservative evangelicalism to agnosticism began when a teacher put it to him on the tricky question of Abiathar (Mark 2:26), “Maybe Mark just made a mistake?” Nor am I unaware that some non-inerrantist evangelicals such as Peter Enns have ended up too willing (in my opinion) to find discrepancies within Scripture: Enns has ended up in the unfortunate position of, for example, pitting the ethical teaching of Jesus against that of the Old Testament.
My answer is to keep close to the centre. At the centre of our Christian faith are the saving works of God in Christ. Somewhat off-centre (but still important) is the general trustworthiness of Scripture (I put it like that because even Warfield recognised that you could conceivably have a Christian faith without any Bible at all). Nearer the edge, and interesting but not worth falling out over, are the discussions we might have about how we understand various ‘problem’ passages might be understood, and various ‘discrepancies’ resolved.
Evangelicals are used to singing, about other aspects of their faith, ‘I cannot tell…but this I know.’ Let’s sing it about our Scriptures as well.