Inerrancy and infallibility, writes Timothy Ward, are not to be thought of as the most important things that we say about Scripture. Rather than being of central or foundational importance, they are implications of our belief in the trustworthiness of the Bible.
What follows is a summary of Ward’s views on this subject. (I have set out my own views elsewhere).
‘Infallibility’ is often taken to mean that the Bible is entirely trustworthy is matters of faith and conduct.
‘Inerrancy’ typically means that the Bible is completely true in all that it affirms.
Inerrancy is not a recent invention. Although the term became more widely used during the nineteenth century, the idea is as old as Christianity itself. ‘The conviction that God communicates in Scripture a revelation of himself and of his deeds, and that this revelation is entirely truthful, has always been the common belief of most Catholics, most Protestants, most Orthodox, and even most of the sects of the fringe of Christianity’ (Mark Noll).
Ward suggests that inerrancy does not flow out of the faulty reasoning which says that because God is perfect he must have produced a perfect Scripture. It is at least logically possible that a sovereign God could have used an errant Scripture for his purposes had he so wished. But we do not come to the Bible with the a priori assumption that it must be inerrant: rather, we take our cue from the Bible itself, and from its witness to God.
Inerrancy takes account of the fact that the Bible is written in ordinary human languages, with all the figures of speech, approximations, free quotations, and so on that we would expect. More generally, belief in inerrancy does not tie us to a literal interpretation of, say, the opening chapters of Genesis.
Inerrancy does not imply that the Bible consists primarily of theological propositions.
It is important to locate debates about inerrancy and infallibility in their proper place. Those who oppose inerrancy often do so, not because they strongly object to the doctrine itself, but because they object to the very central place given by many of its supporters.
Inerrancy, then, is not a fundamental doctrine, but is, rather, ‘a natural implication of the fact that Scripture is identified as the speech act of a God who cannot lie, and who has chosen to reveal himself to us in words.’
One reason why we should regard inerrancy as no more than a ‘natural implication’ of inspiration rather than the core of it, is that inerrancy is a claim about Scripture’s propositions. But the words of Scripture are more than propositions: for through its words God performs acts of revelation and redemption.
It is, in fact, no great thing to say of a text that it contains no errors. The same thing could be said of a good dictionary. It is much more significant to say about a text who wrote it, and what purposes it was intended to achieve.
But, on the other hand, inerrancy is no less than a ‘natural implication’ of inspiration. It is a true feature of Scripture, and flows from the character of God. Even though Scripture must not be limited to propositional statements, such statements cannot be separated from the wider purposes of the divine revelation, so often disclosed in historical details.
What, then, should be our approach to apparent or alleged errors in the Bible? Apparent historical discrepancies are amenable to historical research. We can afford to be open-minded as we await further information, knowing that much historical research has tended to support the biblical narrative.
Alleged internal contradictions are rather different. We should not rush to attempt to reconcile these, for to do so might diminish the richness of God’s revelation (was it Satan, 1 Chron 21:1, or God, 2 Sam 24:1, who incited David? The mystery is largely solved in early chapters of Job, where it is clear that Satan acts within definite boundaries drawn by God himself.)
Based on Timothy Ward, Words of Life, 132-142.