Dedicated to the devotional, exegetical and philosophical study of theological paradox in Conservative, Thoroughly Biblical, Historically Orthodox, Essentially Reformed theology . . . to the glory of God alone!

Monday, August 02, 2010

Has the Doctrine of Inerrancy Outlived Its Usefulness?

Inerrancy simply means that the Bible, in its original manuscripts, is entirely true and free from any kind of error. In more colloquial language, it is the belief that the Bible is totally trustworthy because it is totally true. Corresponding to this is the belief that God has preserved the Word He carefully spoke through the prophets, so that the extant Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts are substantially free from error. At the very least, this means we can discern when and where a scribal error or emendation may have taken place, and there is ultimately no essential detail that is misleading or inaccurate after study. Some details may be unclear, but none are inaccurate. The reliability of the Bible is a core doctrine of orthodox Christian theology.

In a recent post on the blog "Near Emmaus," Robert Jiminez wonders aloud whether this term retains any usefulness in today's world. He begins this way:

"Through out most of my Christian life I had embraced verbal inerrancy, however in the last several years I have been reevaluating some of my positions that I have held. Although I had embraced this position it never really sat well with me. Inerrancy for all it’s good intentions is a term that in my opinion has outlived it’s usefulness in the advancement of promoting the authority of the Bible, and it’s trustworthiness. It is a position that is difficult to defend, and further problematic because of the various definitions attributed to it."
One might observe that these sentiments don't seem very near to Emmaus at all. Wouldn't our Lord's exposition to the two disciples on the Emmaus Road result in an increased faith in the reliability of the Law and the Prophets? It is strange that a writer at a site named for the exposition of Scripture by God Himself would object to the doctrine of inerrancy. Here are Jimenez's objections, summarized:

1. Inerrancy never sat well with me
2. Inerrancy is difficult to defend
3. Inerrancy is problematic because it is defined several different ways

I believe these are the weakest possible, and the most extremely errant, reasons for rejecting a doctrine. They suggest that personal bias and preference, along with a quest for relevance and simplicity of presentation, are of greater value than adherence to orthodox faith.

So far, Jiminez has only offered the first installment in a promised muli-part series. We will follow his arguments and respond point by point. In the remainder of this post, we will examine two other Christian doctrines and pretend to "defeat" them by applying the same logic Jimenez applies to the doctrine of inerrancy. Thus, we will face a clear choice:

1. Retain inerrancy and all other Biblically warranted orthodox doctrines, or
2. Reject inerrancy and all other Biblically warranted orthodox doctrines.

Besides this, I will argue that all orthodox doctrines are properly built upon inerrancy, so an attack on inerrancy undermines the entire Biblical faith of Christianity. One attacks this doctrine only at the risk of sliding into heresy, because inerrancy provides the definitive guide to Christian belief. Without it, we cannot declare anything true or false on Biblical grounds. Down the road, I might invoke J. Gresham Machen as a witness against creeping liberalism. But we'll wait and see where Jimenez's next shot is aimed, and respond accordingly.

For now, let's take a look at the Biblical doctrines of "Faith" and "Holiness," and ask the question: "Have they outlived their usefulness?"

The "Sit Well" Test.

The doctrines of Faith and Holiness have never sat well with me. They generally don't present themselves as agreeable to human nature, and in fact are rejected by the majority of human beings for this very reason. Faith calls me to abandon my independence and self-reliance, choosing rather to place my full trust in a mysterious, invisible Being who claims absolute sovereignty over everything that exists (including me). It definitely doesn't sit well, but love for Christ leads us to accept and even appreciate this doctrine. I wonder if our resistance to it "sits well" with God?

Holiness calls me to recognize my deeply corrupt impurity and my responsibility to be changed or destroyed. It demands that I esteem God so highly as to recognize that no creature can stand before His infinitely grand, perfect Otherness. So, although God loves and accepts me just as I am, He won't and can't leave me this way. He commits Himself by covenant to change me. This definitely doesn't sit well, but one cannot even start to believe the Gospel without understanding at least the core components of this doctrine.

The "Difficult to Defend" Test

How does one begin to defend Faith and Holiness? The only conceivable way is to find them in Scripture. But if we don't have an inerrant Bible, what difference does it make? How do we know the applicable Biblical passages are not somehow erroneous? Without Scripture, how could I ever defend the proposition that human beings must trust God? How would I defend the proposition that God is holy and demands holiness from us? Where would I even start?

The "Too Many Definitions" Test

If any random heretic can topple an orthodox doctrine simply by creating alternate definitions for the same words, the battle was lost before it began. Yet Jimenez states the argument directly,
"This is one of the major problems with this position, too many definitions."
That's a major problem? If it really is a major problem, there can never be any measurable orthodoxy at all, only a meandering stream of new temporary terms to describe concepts that are no longer meaningful. Why not rather clarify the meaning using a Biblical standard? Whatever the reasons given, rejecting the doctrine only demonstrates that one has already rejected the doctrine! Jimenez has fallen into the classic semantic snare of postmodernism.

How many erroneous definitions of Faith might one identify in the modern Evangelical world (let alone the wider Christian community)? Some believe faith is a denial of reality, some believe it is a creative substance used for our own profit, some believe it is little more than baptism or church attendance. Shall we stop believing in REAL Faith? Holiness, too, has been twisted. It is reduced to a subjective feeling or rendered as a mere list of rules to keep. There are more false varieties of holiness in the world today than there are species of trees! Does this somehow make true Holiness an invalid doctrine? Apply the "Too Many Definitions" test to the Person of Jesus Christ, and see how many variations you can find! Applying such a test to any doctrine is absurd, and only proves a presuppositional bias against the doctrine. So many straws to grasp, and only two hands with which to grasp them! It's a textbook case of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Is it possible that a doctrine becomes corrupted and shredded into many different false variations precisely because it does not sit well with human beings, and precisely because is difficult to defend from man-centered premises - yet it is nonetheless true? Do we not find ourselves constantly fighting the temptation to soften Biblical doctrines in the face of our ungodly culture? No wonder true doctrines morph into so many falsified clones of themselves at the hands of the self-appointed "doctors" of the church!

We see that Jimenez's complaints about inerrancy might just as well be applied to "Faith" and "Holiness." I call upon Jimenez to reject all three, or retain all three, but not to attempt to saw off the branch on which his own faith and holiness are built. But one might ask: is inerrancy as Biblically warranted as "Faith" and "Holiness" are? To answer that, let us go with faith in the holiness of our God, to the primary epistemic Source for every Christian: the inerrant Bible. I care little about the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI), or the opinions of Norman L. Geisler, good as they probably are. It is the Bible Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (BSBI) that matters most.

II Timothy 2:15 Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.

It is the Word of Truth, not the word of half-truths or errors. If it is not inerrant, the only right handling would be to identify and remove the errors. Therefore, let all non-inerrantists demonstrate how to authoritatively separate the purported fictions from the facts of Scripture! (Cf. Psalm 119:43, Ephesians 1:13, James 1:18)

II Timothy 3:16-17 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.

God does not breathe out lies. God does not need us to give Him a breath mint. God breathes inerrant Truth, and it is sweet.

Psalm 19:7-12
The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul.
The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple.
The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes.
The fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever.
The ordinances of the LORD are sure and altogether righteous.
They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb.
By them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.
Who can discern his errors? Forgive my hidden faults.

After extolling the virtues of God's Word, David considers his own faults, but not any error supposedly found in Scripture. Scripture is seen as the remedy for human errors, not the result of them.

Isaiah 8:19-22 When men tell you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living? To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn. Distressed and hungry, they will roam through the land; when they are famished, they will become enraged and, looking upward, will curse their king and their God. Then they will look toward the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness.

We inquire of God in His Word. It is not dead, but alive, and it is the standard by which all else is judged. Whatever contradicts it does not have the faintest light. Those who oppose it are doomed to destruction. God defends and guarantees the inerrancy of His own Word.

For now, this is enough. Much more Scripture could be cited in its own defense, but I'll save it for future installments.

As a final postscript, we may note with an obviousness that ought to be unnecessary, that no true doctrine can possibly "outlive its usefulness." If a doctrine is true, it isn't new. And if it's new, it isn't true. God's Word is eternal and all of it is profitable (i.e. useful, II Timothy 3:16). May He be forever praised!


  1. Hello Derek,

    I don't want to jump the gun in my analysis so I'll be careful, but I think that you are jumping to some major conclusions before you have heard my final analysis on this subject.

    You say " attack on inerrancy undermines the entire Biblical faith of Christianity. One attacks this doctrine only at the risk of sliding into heresy, because inerrancy provides the definitive guide to Christian belief"

    Yet here I stand in full belief of the Trinity, the incarnation, the death and ressurection of Christ. This is just not true that this will lead to heresy.  The Scriptures provide the definitive guide to our beliefs, not inerrancy.  However, as I stated in my response to you in my blog that this is a series and I ask for your patients and an irenic spirit in this discussion.

  2. Brother Robert,

    Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on this post. As I mentioned at your blog, I am aware that I may be raising a straw man, and look forward to your pointing out the differences between your position and the one I am arguing against, if there are any. If there is a viable alternative to inerrancy, I anxiously await your explanation of it. Obviously, I don't see any alternative at this point in time, and I've noted that I don't find your reasons for rejecting the traditional doctrine convincing. But I have also affirmed you as a brother, and I think shown the same kind of respect I wish to receive. As I mentioned at your site, it is possible I have misunderstood you and am dealing with a position you aren't actually taking. I'll be glad to issue apologies and eat some of my words if needed.

    I look forward to your ongoing series and hope I end up disappointed with myself and pleasantly surprised by what you present.


  3. "In more colloquial language, it is the belief that the Bible is totally trustworthy because it is totally true." You're absolutely correct.

  4. Cammie,

    Thanks for your comment.


  5. You wrote,
    "belief that God has preserved the Word He carefully spoke through the prophets, so that the extant Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts are substantially free from error."

    "At the very least, this means we can discern when and where a scribal error or emendation may have taken place..."

    So if it's "preserved" but we have to look for scribal or emendation error, isn't that contradictory?

    I know you referenced the original manuscripts, but if it's preserved, but has scribal and emendation error, then it's not preserved...

    Maybe I read you wrong, but it feels like you've led me into a cul-de-sac.

  6. Bible Monkey,

    That's a well worded question that deserves an answer. Let me say upfront that I could very well lead you into a cul-de-sac. However, I am of the belief that the Bible never will. Take its Words above mine.

    I don't know if I can do your question justice, but I'll offer the following because it might be helpful. The key point I'm making is that God has provided us with all the tools needed to have a reasonable certainty about the Scriptures. There can be no doubt that scribes and copyists made errors, and even emendations (in an effort to correct previous errors) as they transmitted the text. But we have enough manuscript data to know (again, with reasonable certainty) when and where this occurred. The Hebrew scribes in particular were fanatically devoted to recording these things, and they wouldn't simply "change" the sacred Word because it suited them (although they might get a rabbi to reinterpret the text in a way that twisted the plain meaning, but that's another story). The copying process may leave a few spots in the text unclear, as any reader of commentaries knows. However, according to the best scholars I've read, the vast majority of the text has been preserved with remarkable accuracy and clarity. So, there is substantial preservation, but the manuscripts not hermetically sealed. Within the preserving process, the Holy Spirit did allow some tiny portions of the text to become obscure.

    If I understand your question, it boils down to this: why would God allow copyist errors to occur if He was actively preserving His Word? It's a good question.

    Many reasons can be given. One of the most obvious is that God wants us to study His Book diligently. He wants us to care about the early manuscripts and keep going back to them.

    I am also reminded of something Pascal wrote. Paraphrased, it goes something like this: God has provided enough clarity that those who believe can hold their faith with reasons; but He has left enough obscurity that those who are bent on unbelief can find plenty of things to confirm their self-delusion.

    That's a totally hacked quotation of Pascal, but I think it applies well to your question.

    There are other answers to your question, but I suggest you read some of the major advocates of inerrancy to see what they say about it. People smarter and more studied than I have addressed these issues.

    Thanks for asking.


  7. Incidentally, I've now read the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy and found it to be a phenomenal document. It wouldn't be an overstatement to say that my heart was filled with unspeakable joy as I read the powerful wisdom contained in it. Here is a portion that is relevant to the question asked by Bible Monkey:

    "Since God has nowhere promised an inerrant transmission of Scripture, it is necessary to affirm that only the autographic text of the original documents was inspired and to maintain the need of textual criticism as a means of detecting any slips that may have crept into the text in the course of its transmission. The verdict of this science, however, is that the Hebrew and Greek text appear to be amazingly well preserved, so that we are amply justified in affirming, with the Westminster Confession, a singular providence of God in this matter and in declaring that the authority of Scripture is in no way jeopardized by the fact that the copies we possess are not entirely error-free."

    The CSBI is really worth reading and thinking over. I'll probably post a link to it in the near future.

  8. I apologize for a late comment, been busy. Please don't take this as I'm trying to be mean. Why did you write "I care little about the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy" and then say "I've now read the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy and found it to be a phenomenal document?" I already knew there was no promise of an inerrant transmission of Scripture but I was checking to see if you knew.

    The primary problem with Biblical Inerrancy is, there's too many definitions of what it is. Probably the "Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy" provided that clarity.

    Nobody is really paying attention to the Chicago Statement and probably most don't even know it exists.

    So when a Church or group forms a belief on it to teach, they probably start all over and yet again create a brand new twist on what inerrancy is.

    Not debating, just pointing out thoughts and observations formed over the years...

  9. Bible Monkey,

    Late comments are no problem, and I appreciate the thoughts.

    My original statement about the CSBI was partly hyperbole intended to point to the Scriptures themselves as the truest and most ultimate authority on the Scriptures. It was also a reflection of my theological method (oh no, I'm starting to scare myself!)

    My method tends toward Biblicism, and I try to search out an issue in Scripture alone before looking into man's thoughts and traditions in regard to it. I usually discover later that I ended up very close or even identical to a traditional construct, but I feel more honest and I hold the doctrine more firmly if I found it by studying Scripture first. That's not always possible, but I try to stay deliberately focused on the Word and submit to its authority first and foremost.

    I might make a similar statement about the Canons of Dordt, with which I am in full accord, but in comparison with the Bible I really and truly don't care what Dordt says.

    I've been aware of the CSBI for a long time, and I've unwittingly absorbed a good bit of its content through other sources, but when I read it for myself I was amazed by how good it was.

    As the Evangelical attack on Scripture intensifies, conservatives will be forced to make more and more specific statements and go beyond CSBI. But CSBI is a good place to start, I think.


  10. Dear brothers and sisters in Christ:

    There are some important points to make on this subject:

    (1) The Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy is the minimum position that bible-believing Christians should take on this subject.

    Of course the original words of God are inerrant. God is inerrant, and that's a no-brainer. But we have to go further:

    God also is perfectly capable of communicating successfully with men, and having them understand exactly what He wants them to. God Himself tells us in Holy Scripture that His word never goes out and comes back "void". God's endeavors are always 100% successful. He designs the lesson in His words to be 100% accurate, 100% profitable, and 100% appropriate for His hearers.

    From this we must assume that God's words when delivered, are at least successfully and accurately transmitted and understood by His servants the prophets, and His Apostles.

    This doesn't guarantee that every Apostle or disciple is an encyclopedia of God's truth. It takes time to receive and rightly understand a teaching from God.

    So for example, we find Peter not aware of God's full plan for the Gentiles, and needing a correcting vision (in Acts). Sometimes, the error of hypocrisy happens, as when Paul and Peter disputed about fellowship with Gentiles. But this is not an error on God's part, but man's. Nor does God ever leave any of His servants in the dark for long.

    From this we should conclude that although Paul or Peter can be "wrong" occasionally, or lacking in some teaching or instruction, we cannot extend this fault to the Holy and authoritative words Inspired by the Holy Spirit and destined to become Holy scripture by the guidance of the Holy Spirit of God Himself.

  11. As for the doctrine of Divine Preservation, Christians ought to believe that God can and will preserve His word to all generations, which He has already decided mankind is to publicly receive and use as a guide to salvation.

    It makes no sense that God would have a perfect message, communicate it perfectly to His leaders like Moses, the prophets and Apostles, guide their thought and actions by the power of the Holy Spirit, and have them write Holy Scripture, only to then let supposed "forces of nature", "chance", "random events", and "error" corrupt that message in an accumulative basis for 2,000 more years.

    Instead, Christians ought to know that any belief in "random events", "chance", or "forces of nature" independent of God Himself is a false belief. Events may be caused by sin, or the will of men, or the forces of nature, but they do not take place without the knowledge and control of God Himself. Jesus calmed the storm and walked on the waves, and we have to remember the full power of God.

    Therefore although events are often a mystery, and appear to men as tests of faith, tests of will, and tests of loyalty, not a hair on our heads suffers without the overseeing love and care of God the Father.

    Some things however, God does place in men's hands, to see what he will do.

    So we find Christians commanded to preach the Gospel everywhere. God wants US to do it.

    A part of that task is caring for, and preserving the publicly revealed word of God in the Holy Scriptures. God wants US to do it.

    Does that mean that God will really trust us to look after His word? NO!

    As it is written: "He did not entrust Himself to them, for He knew all men." (John 2:24)

    If we want to understand Divine Preservation, we have to remember that God is a FATHER to us.

    Just like a father will run along side his child learning to ride a bike, we as the Body of Christ are in no real danger of losing the Holy Scriptures. It may seem like we are "free", on our own as we learn to ride the bike, but the Father is always right there to catch us. We do the steering, but if we fail or make a mistake, our loving Father will prevent that error from going too far, or becoming permanent.

    God is not a "deadbeat Dad".

  12. Thus the "Chicago Statement" must be expanded to include the Holy Scriptures in our possession as essentially divinely preserved, and for all intents and purposes inerrant and a reliable guide in all matters of faith and conduct.

    Biblical Inerrancy of the "Autographs" is worthless without the complimentary doctrine of Divine Preservation, based on our knowledge of God the Father as revealed by Jesus the Christ.

    God doesn't promise that no scribe will ever make a mistake. They all did. God doesn't promise that every printed Bible will be free of typesetting errors. They all have them.

    But God the Father does assist us to preserve His Holy Scriptures for all following generations.

    The Bible will never be obselete through corruption, attrition or loss.

    Remember also that although the Israelites at times lost the Books of the Law of Moses, this cannot happen again in the New Kingdom established on earth by Jesus the Christ, and prophesied by Daniel.

    The Stone Kingdom made without hands will be an everlasting Kingdom, and the New Covenant will be an everlasting Covenant.

    How then can the Holy Scriptures be significantly corrupted by mere human frailty? God is watching over us, and guiding us via the Holy Spirit.

    If thats not Divine Preservation, what is?

    If you want to see how easily God can protect His word, and defend its verses, have a look at these websites:

    The first provides all the evidence for the authenticity of John 8:1-11 (a verse that some critics tried to remove from the Bible)

    And here you can look at how scribal errors happen and are caught and fixed:

    yours in Christ,
    - the Dean

  13. Dean,

    Thanks for weighing in and thanks for sharing the links. Without quibbling over a phrase here or there, I generally agree with what you have written and it is well presented.

    However, when NT scholar Andreas Kostenberger was at my church a few months back he made strong statements to the effect that Bible publishers should remove the John 8 passage. That made me wonder about its textual merits. I do have high regard for the passage and sort of cheer for it as "hopefully" canonical.

    BTW - this was the first post in a three part series, you may find the other parts of interest also.



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