The Error of Inerrancy

All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. - 2 Timothy 3:16-17

Next to the divinity of Jesus, there is probably nothing more sacred to the modernist evangelical worldview than the doctrine of inerrancy. Indeed, most evangelical churches have a statement of faith that begins with a sentence about inerrancy, like “We believe that only the sixty-six books of the Bible are the inspired and, therefore, inerrant Word of God.” The twin ideas of biblical inspiration and authority come, of course, from NT passages like the one quoted above. But for most evangelicals, inerrancy is the necessary corollary to inspiration and authority, and is thus indispensible for upholding the orthodox faith against the skepticism of liberal scholarship.

It should be recognized, however, that the doctrine of inerrancy is deduced from Scripture’s statements about authority and inspiration, not read directly from Scripture itself. Unfortunately, many evangelicals see inerrancy as being synonymous with authority and inspiration, to the point that any argument against inerrancy is received as an attack on the other two beliefs as well. But this simply isn’t the case. My aim in the following paragraphs is to disentangle the doctrine of inerrancy from the claim of biblical authority, and to explain why the former is poorly equipped to provide the necessary foundation for the latter. Before we get into it, though, I’d like to make a few opening remarks.

First, while this should go without saying, I want to be absolutely clear that my intent is not to tear down anyone’s faith in the authority of Scripture. Quite the opposite, in fact. My hope is that, by drawing attention to the weak foundation which inerrancy provides for our faith, the path might be cleared to discover a more secure foundation. Paul tells us to test all things, and yet many believers simply accept the doctrine of inerrancy without even questioning or weighing the various alternatives, and thus debates about the subject tend to be overly reactionary and alarmist. Most conservatives assume that any mistake on the part of the human vessel, however insignificant it might be, altogether invalidates the truth of God's word. But for others, like myself, minor mistakes are taken for the relatively insignificant things that they are. The question is this: Can the truth of God’s message still shine through clearly when there are minor, peripheral mistakes on the part of his messengers? I contend that it can. It’s like misspelling a word in an otherwise coherent sentence. One misspelled word does not render the entire sentence unintelligible.

Secondly, many Christians don’t realize that the doctrine of inerrancy is a fairly recent construct, adopted by conservatives since the Enlightenment as a way of fortifying their faith in the authority of Scripture against the attacks of liberal scholarship. But the premise of the whole controversy is entirely off base. I understand how threatening the subject appears to a contemporary evangelical mindset, but we must understand that it was never a serious issue of controversy until at least the eighteenth century. We are free to ignore these questions if we wish, but by ignoring them we forfeit the historical claim upon which Christianity is founded.

Thirdly, there’s a larger problem that goes mostly unnoticed in the fray of these debates, a problem which actually renders the whole argument completely irrelevant. As we have seen, the explicit purpose of inerrancy is to provide a philosophical foundation for the belief in the authority of Scripture. It aims, in other words, to support the idea expressed in passages like 2 Timothy 3:16, that all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for the church. Of course, none of those passages actually claim that because a text is inspired it is therefore always correct in its historical or scientific statements. The larger problem with inerrancy, however, lies in the purpose of the doctrine itself.

The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy states that the doctrine applies only to the original documents. Conservative theologians like Wayne Grudem agree with this qualification: “Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact” (Systematic Theology, p. 90). Yes, of course. How could it be any different, since we all know that the copies and translations we possess actually do contain minor errors? But therein lies the problem: Inerrancy only works as a legitimate means of supporting the authority of Scripture if it works for the manuscripts which we actually possess, or else it undermines the authority of everything that is not an original manuscript. And since we do not possess any of the original manuscripts, the doctrine of inerrancy only succeeds in sabotaging its own purpose.

Is the Bible in my hand authoritative or not? Inerrancy cannot answer this question. Much better to simply admit some minor mistakes in the original documents themselves and to see them for what they are: trivial and peripheral scaffolding to the message God wanted to speak through the authors or Scripture, which shines through clearly despite the limitations of the authors.

Now, with those opening remarks out of the way, we can finally address the subject head on. I’d like to start things out by focusing on the apparent difference between Matthew 27:3-10 and Acts 1:16-19, two accounts of Judas’ death. In Matthew’s account, Judas returns the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests, goes and hangs himself, and then the chief priests buy a field with the money to use as a cemetery. In this account, the fact that the field was paid for with blood money and turned into a cemetery explains why it later became known as the “field of blood”. In Luke’s account, however, Judas himself uses the silver to buy a field, and then he falls head first in that field and bursts open so that his entrails spill out. In this account, the fact that Judas died in the same field that he purchased with blood money explains why it later became known as the “field of blood,” not because the chief priests purchased the field and used it for a cemetery.

The way that both passages explain things by an appeal to Scripture is also noteworthy. Matthew specifically cites a passage with the plural pronoun “they,” which fits with his understanding of the events in question, i.e. that the chief priests (plural) used the blood money to buy a field. Luke, however, cites an entirely different passage with the singular pronoun “he,” which of course fits with his understanding of the events in question, i.e. that Judas (singular) used the blood money to buy the field that he later died in.

So the question presses: How do the differences between Matthew’s account and Luke’s account fit with the doctrine of inerrancy? Of course, no two accounts of anything would be completely identical. But it does appear that these two texts represent different interpretations of how a particular set of closely related events happened. In order for the proponents of inerrancy to really provide a credible solution here, they must provide an explanation that has a ring of historical plausibility to it. From what I’ve seen, however, every attempt to harmonize the two passages is far too convoluted to be taken seriously.

Beyond the questions of historical harmony, though, there’s also the question of scientific accuracy. Is the ancient near-Eastern understanding of the cosmos, which lies behind passages like the creation account of Genesis, a factually accurate description of the universe? Many Christians seek to give a modern scientific (or, more often, pseudo-scientific) explanation for the details of Genesis 1, but, truth be told, these explanations only distort the meaning of the text by trying to make it fit with our modern view of the cosmos. If God decided to communicate a modern scientific understanding of the cosmos in Genesis 1 and similar passages, then it would have been completely unintelligible to its original audience. The ancients believed that the sky was a material thing, a solid dome upheld by massive pillars that kept the waters from falling on the earth all at once, and texts like Genesis 1:6-8 reflect this primitive understanding. If we believe in the authority of Scripture, then we are warned not to change the meaning of the text into something it never intended to say. But again, we are forced to ask, how does this understanding of ancient cosmology fit with the doctrine of inerrancy?

The real question we should be asking at this point, however, is this: How is God’s message endangered by such minor disagreements as these? Is the gospel about the identity of the person (or persons) who bought the field of blood? Is the point of Genesis 1 to correct an ancient understanding of the cosmos, or indeed to dictate the boundaries of modern science? This, in turn, invites some further questions: Does the affirmation from 2 Timothy 3:16 (that all Scripture is God-breathed and therefore authoritative) warrant the abstraction that the human authors through whom God spoke were themselves completely free from error? Is the trustworthiness of God’s message nullified by minor mistakes on the part of the human authors? Does “inspiration” mean that God basically overrides our human faculties so that his message can get through unfiltered, undefiled by flesh, or does it actually involve the human faculties of his messengers and become flesh?

Truth be told, the particular name on the title deed of the field of blood is completely inconsequential to the evangelists’ goal of testifying faithfully to Jesus’ kingdom-bringing work. The widespread agreement of the gospels testifies to their reliability as historical witnesses, and the few minor disagreements are the exceptions that prove the rule. Likewise, the point of Genesis 1 is not to explain the material details of the cosmos with an abstract science from above, but to say that God, the one true God of the universe, made everything that exists, brought order out of chaos, and light out of darkness. The writers of Scripture were not inspired to confront the material cosmology of their culture; they were inspired to confront the dominant worldview of their culture. For the ancients, Genesis 1 challenged polytheism with monotheism: there is one God, and he made everything. For the modernists, it challenges a meaningless, naturalist view of reality with a story of purpose and design.

But all the same, according to the modernist evangelical perspective, any mistakes in the original text, however minor they may be, necessarily means that the text was not God-breathed. In this view, inspiration effectively means override. It seems much more likely, however, both critically and theologically, that biblical inspiration actually involves our human faculties and that God in his sovereignty ensures that the truth of his message shines through despite our human limitations.

This is what some call an “incarnational” view of biblical inspiration. In the same way that God humbled himself by becoming flesh and dwelling among us, becoming accessible, touchable, and knowable to finite human minds in history, so he humbled himself by speaking through finite, historical human vessels in what has become the biblical canon. We couldn’t get to God, so God had to come to us. He came down, both in the spoken words of the prophets and in the broken body on the cross. And just as we have access to God through the humanity of Jesus, so we have access to the mind of God through the humanness of his words spoken in Scripture. This account allows for minor errors, so long as those errors do not endanger God’s message. It provides a solid, defensible foundation for our faith in the authority of Scripture, and it doesn’t sacrifice the relational character of God in the process.