Ever since I came to a living faith in Christ at the age of 19, I have been persuaded of the truthfulness and trustworthiness of the Bible.
I also acquired at that time a real desire to study the Christian faith in general, and the Bible in particular. This led me to my local library where a book that caught my eye was the Bible Handbook by G.W. Foote and W.P. Ball (don’t you just love that pair of names?). On looking at the book more carefully when I reached home, I realised that it was not at all the kind of thing I was expecting. Far from being an informative guide to the Bible it turned out to be a compilation of supposed errors and contradictions as uncovered by two ‘freethinkers’. Well, I thought I would have a good look at these alleged problems and inaccuracies. I examined carefully any number of Bible passages that were supposed to be problemmatic but came to the settled conclusion that the difficulties were apparent, rather than real. That doesn’t mean, of course, that I found answers to all the questions or solutions to all the problems. But I did find that the whole exercise confirmed my belief in the inspiration and authority of the Bible.
So why, I ask myself, have I always found myself slightly uneasy with the notion of ‘inerrancy’ as applied to Holy Scripture? The word seems to suggest a kind of precision that is simply not in keeping with the nature of the Bible itself. ‘Inerrancy’ is applicable to a telephone directory, but not to a psalm.
The lines of battle have tended to be more sharply drawn in the United States than in the UK. In 1976 Harold Lindsell published The Battle for the Bible, in which he insisted that anything less than belief in the detailed inerrancy of Scripture was a defection from evangelicalism itself. Lindsell ‘named and shamed’ leading individuals and institutions who he thought were departing from the faith in this regard. Many American evangelical organisations purged from their ranks those who did not subscribe to unqualified inerrancy. In 1978 a group of evangelical scholars and theologians met to agree ‘The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy’. This statement affirmed that
‘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 individuals lives.’
But, as Roger Olson tartly points out (in A-Z of Evangelical Theology), the statement then goes on to qualify inerrancy in ways ‘that seemed to critics to kill it with the death of a thousand qualifications.’ For example,
‘We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citation.’
But if inerrancy has to be qualified in all these kinds of ways, was it the right word to use in the first place?
David Hubbard, former president of Fuller Theological Seminary in the United States, responded to the inerrancy debate stirred up by Harold Lindsell not by asserting that the Bible is either errant or inerrant, but that the concept of inerrancy is actually irrelevant. Hubbard gave the following reasons for this assertion:-
- Inerrancy is a negative concept. Our view of Scripture should be positive.
- Inerrancy is an unbiblical concept.
- Error in the Scriptures is a spiritual or moral matter, not an intellectual one.
- Inerrancy focuses our attention in minutiae, rather than on the primary concerns of Scripture.
- Inerrancy hinders honest evaluation of the Scriptures.
- Inerrancy creates disunity in the church.
(As summarised in Charts of Christian Theology and Doctrine, H. Wayne House, Zondervan, 1992. Of relevance is chapter 6 of Lindsell’s The Battle for the Bible, which is reproduced here.)
I was interested to read the thoughts of John Stott on this question. Stott gives a number of reasons why he too is uncomfortable with the word ‘inerrancy’:-
1. Scripture is so rich and varied – both in content and form – that it cannot be reduced to a string of propositions that can be simply labelled ‘true’ or ‘false’.
2. The word ‘inerrancy’ is a double negative, and single positives are better than double negatives. Evangelicals can, and should, agree, that the Bible is true and trustworthy.
3. ‘Inerrancy’ sends out the wrong signals and develops the wrong attitudes. ‘Instead of encouraging us to search the Scriptures so that we may grown in grace and in the knowledge of God, it seems to turn us into detectives hunting for incriminating clues and to make us excessively defensive in relation to apparent discrepanices.
4. It is unwise and unfair to use ‘inerrancy’ as a shibboleth by which to identify who is evangelical and who is not. ‘The hall mark of authentic evangelicalism is not subscription but submission.’
5. It is impossible to prove that the Bible contains no errors. When faced with an apparent discrepancy, we should avoid both premature negative judgment and contrived harmonisation, but be prepared to suspend judgment until further light is given to us.
(Stott, Evangelical Truth, 73f.)