Why I Don’t Hate the Word ‘Inerrancy’
Perhaps that’s because I’m English. My limited experience in transatlantic dialogue suggests that the word “inerrancy” is divisive in America, up there with “Texas” and “Pelosi” in the list of words most likely to prompt expressions of luminescent ecstasy in some and enraged inarticulate spluttering in others. It seems to be a tribal marker, a password that clearly divides the teams into goodies and baddies, the mere mention of which can cause both sides to run scurrying to the barricades, whether they’re faithful conservatives contending with woolly liberals, or reflective centrists contending with mindless fundies. In the UK, however, it’s not such a contentious concept.
Question Rarely Asked
In ten years of teaching, writing, and researching theology, I’ve never once been asked whether or not I believe in inerrancy. As it happens, I do. If someone was to ask me whether, in my view, the Scriptures contain mistakes or not, I would answer in the negative. Partly this is a result of theological conviction about the divine and human components of Scripture: that when God’s words are expressed by humans, neither their human aspects (authorial personality, tone, language, mode of expression) nor their divine aspects (truthfulness, authority, clarity, reliability) are compromised. Partly it’s because I’d find it strange to tell people that the whole Bible represents the word of God, and the word of God is completely truthful, but that parts of the Bible aren’t completely truthful. (I don’t mean to say that nobody can believe all three of these things but that it would be beyond my intellectual faculties to do so.) Mostly, though, it’s because of Jesus. Put simply, based on what I read in the Gospels, I cannot imagine (if we let this rather implausible thought-experiment run for a moment) Jesus being asked whether the Scriptures contained mistakes or not, and saying yes.
Having said that, I cannot imagine him being asked the question in the first place. From what we can tell, the question of inerrancy was not a live debate in first-century Palestine; nobody had bothered to distinguish between inerrancy and infallibility, caveats about the original manuscripts were infrequent, and you didn’t have to affirm inerrancy to belong to the Galilean Theological Society. In fact, most of Jesus’s famous statements about the truthfulness and permanence of the Jewish scriptures—“not one iota will disappear from the Law until all is accomplished,” “the scriptures cannot be broken,” “it is written,” “the scriptures must be fulfilled,” “David, speaking by the Spirit,” and so on—give the impression of having been largely uncontroversial to their original audiences. If there were parts of the Hebrew Bible that Jesus, or anyone else we encounter in the Gospels, regarded as mistaken (which, from what we know of first-century Judaism, would be a highly unusual view), they have left no such indication in the records we have. The idea of there being mistakes in the Torah, for example, would not have occurred to him, or to any of his earliest followers.
Not only that, but many of the biblical passages people today find the most troubling, and the most likely to be “mistaken,” are also affirmed willy-nilly by Jesus and the apostles, with complete disregard for any subsequent historical-critical brouhahas that might emerge. Creation ex nihilo, the origin of death in humans, the murder of Abel by Cain, a cataclysmic flood of judgment, the righteous judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Mosaic origin of the Torah, manna from heaven, driving out the Canaanites, the Isaianic authorship of the servant songs, and so on—it’s almost as if Jesus and his followers went out of their way to affirm and validate all of the most awkward and recalcitrant apologetic curveballs in the Tanakh, just to make life difficult for post-Enlightenment Western interpreters. It is possible, of course, that Jesus and the apostles were also mistaken, and that their affirmation of all these challenging Old Testament texts reflects nothing more than their limited horizons of understanding. (Most Christians are not prepared to go there, of course, and neither am I; those who do, though in my view misguided, are at least consistent.) But it is hard to argue for an errant Bible based on the words and actions of an inerrant Jesus.
So when asked the street-level question, “Does the Bible contain mistakes?” I always answer, “When interpreted properly, no.” That first clause is important; after all, an awful lot of people in history have thought that the Bible says the earth is at the center of the universe, flat, and built on pillars. There is also a plethora of texts whose literal meaning cannot be their original meaning—ranging from the obviously poetic (“your breasts are clumps of dates”) to the obviously symbolic (“then I saw a beast coming out of the sea”) and the obviously hyperbolic (“cut your eye out and throw it away”)—as well as a group of other texts whose literal meaning may or may not be their original meaning (as anyone who has read Paul Copan on Joshua, Tom Wright on the Olivet Discourse, or Greg Beale on Revelation will know). Consequently, care is needed, particularly in a church context where declaring that “the Bible does not contain mistakes” may be taken as code for “the tribulation will last three-and-a-half calendar years, every single Amalekite was killed by Saul, the moon will literally turn into blood one day, the revelatory gifts have altogether ceased, and evolution is entirely bunk.” When the Bible is interpreted correctly, it is completely true in all that it affirms. When it is interpreted incorrectly, there is no limit to the nonsense we can assume it teaches.
That, I suppose, might be why some people hate the word “inerrancy”—it is damned by association. As a term, it seems to carry all sorts of baggage not associated with the claim that the Bible is all true (which, let’s face it, is a much simpler and much less convoluted word for it): intradenominational division, a Shibboleth culture whereby some people are “in” and some people are “out,” an all-or-nothing deal whereby either everything in the Bible is true or nothing is, and elevation of the Bible above Jesus as the locus of our faith and devotion. In my mind, the associations are different: evangelical conviction, diligent scholarship, confidence in the Scriptures as the Word of God, courageous leadership, and sacrificial mission. But I realize that in some circles, words get tainted (as I discovered when I first came to the United States and let it be known that I was a charismatic). In such cases, it may be the resonances of the word rather than its actual meaning that cause people problems.
But I don’t think the answer is to hate the word. If we were to abandon every word that had been tainted by poor use, we’d have to remove dozens of descriptors from our lexicon, beginning with “Christian”—only to find that the replacements we brought in were also sullied over time by clumsiness, groupthink, insensitivity, and arrogance. For the moment, then, I’ll keep waiting for the day when someone eventually asks me if I believe in inerrancy, at which point I will say yes. And if they disagree, I’ll be sure to be extra nice to them.
This post first appeared on TGC.