March 4, 2014

The Inerrancy of Scripture

The Watershed

Thirty years ago Francis Schaeffer predicted that inerrancy would prove to be the watershed issue for evangelicals. He was right.

Schaeffer described that not far from his home in Switzerland, there was a ridge along the mountains, covered with snow. If the snow melted on one side of the ridge the water drops would trickle down the mountain into a stream, eventually joining the Rhine River, flowing through Germany and emptying into the cold waters of the North Sea. However, if the snow melted two inches to the other side of the ridge, these drops would flow down the Rhone valley into Lake Geneva, then into the Rhone River, flowing through France, until finally reaching the warm waters of the Mediterranean.   

This ridge along the mountains is called the watershed. Although the snow at the top of the mountain seems unified, as it melts its eventual destination will be determined by what side of the watershed it falls on. What seems like a very small difference at first will eventually separate these drops of water by thousands of miles.

Thirty years later, it is obvious that Francis Schaeffer was right. Ideas have consequences.

This article is the third in a series of introductions to the five attributes of Scripture: Necessity, Authority, Inerrancy, Sufficiency, and Perspicuity. These are Five Things I Hope You Believe Are True About Scripture.

Verbal Plenary Inspiration

In a nutshell, inerrancy simply means that Scripture is without error in all that it teaches. This doctrine dovetails with the belief that Scripture is the result of verbal plenary inspiration. If that phrase is new to you, please let me explain it: Inspiration is an older translation of the word theopneustos from 2 Timothy 3:16. It literally means “God-breathed.” The term verbal refers to the words of Scripture (think: “verbs” = words). Finally, if you go to a conference, a “plenary” session is one that everyone attends. So, plenary means “all.” Together, verbal plenary inspiration is the belief that all of the words of the Bible are God-breathed.

  • Verbal = The words of Scripture are God-breathed, not merely the thoughts or ideas.
  • Plenary = All the words of Scripture are God-breathed, not just some of them. (Not just the “red” ones, the popular ones, or the ones we like best.)
  • Inspiration = God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16; theopneustos)
2 Timothy 3:16 teaches that all Scripture is God-breathed. It is wrongheaded to carve it up as if some parts are inspired and some parts are not. It is especially wrongheaded to think that the ink color in modern editions makes any difference. Jesus taught that even “the smallest letter” and “the least stroke of a pen” were all God’s unchanging Word (Mt. 5:18). We also see Jesus (John 10:24-35) and Paul (Gal. 3:16) making theological arguments that depend on the specific words of Scripture. In one of these instances, Jesus also declared, “Scripture cannot be broken.”
Another View: Infallibility without Inerrancy
In the past, the terms infallibility and inerrancy basically meant the same thing. Infallibility means that something cannot fail and inerrant means that something cannot err. They were two sides of the same coin. However, now many theologians distinguish between these two terms and argue that we can have one without the other. This redefinition of infallibility was solidified in the 70's by Jack Rogers and Donald McKim’s who argued (wrongly I believe) that the Scriptures are infallible but not inerrant. They argue that inerrancy is a modern invention, while infallibility is the historic Christian position. They also give the term infallibility a new, very limited meaning. McKim writes:
[Scripture presents] a divine message in human thought forms. The purpose of scripture is not to present inerrant facts; yet it is ‘infallible’ in that it will not lie or deceive about what it is intended to focus upon: God’s salvation in Jesus Christ. In this view, scripture is seen in relation to its central purpose, the proclamation of the gospel (John 20:31) . . . Scripture is infallible in accomplishing its purpose.
In this view, all of the words in Scripture are not inspired. Instead, God gave the human authors certain ideas and helped them to communicate those ideas as best they could in rough human thought forms. All of the details do not need to be correct, they argue, in order to lead people to Jesus.
Because of the influence of this view, a change in language has taken place. Infallibility used to be the more common term, but it used to mean, basically, that Scripture doesn't make mistakes. However, now inerrancy means that Scripture doesn't make mistakes and infallibility (to many) means that Scripture actually does make mistakes, just not very important ones.
Francis Shaeffer saw the difference between these two views of Scripture as the difference between one side of the watershed and the other.
By the way, I should point out that it is true that many older theologians did not list inerrancy as one of the four attributes of Scripture. However, it can be demonstrated that they believed that Scripture never taught any real errors. They saw this as part of the authority of Scripture—and often treated it under that heading. Today, we are forced to be more specific about this issue because of the redefinitions that have taken place.
The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy
As inerrancy was being hotly debated in the 1970’s, conservative theologians met in Chicago in 1978 and drafted the document known as The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. It is a detailed description of what conservative Christians mean when they say that all Scripture is inerrant.
Many of the people who reject inerrancy these days seem to be reacting to a crude, strawman understanding of this doctrine. Instead, it is important for us to understand what inerrancy actually means—whether you accept it or reject it. Either way, it is worth your time to study this document. It helps us to know what inerrancy means, and what it doesn’t actually claim.
Here are a few examples of what the Chicago statement teaches (in bold), along with my summaries and comments: 
Article VIII.
     We affirm that God in His work of inspiration utilized the distinctive personalities and literary styles of the writers whom He had chosen and prepared.
     We deny that God, in causing these writers to use the very words that He chose, overrode their personalities.

God used the human writers’ personalities and writing styles without overriding their personalities. God did not use mechanical dictation.

Article X.
     We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text [the original writings] of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original…

Inerrancy does not mean that every copy of Scripture has been miraculously preserved from type-o's or mistakes. It also does not mean that our translations are perfect. However, our copies and translations are inerrant to the extent that they faithfully reproduce the original

Article XII.
     We affirm that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit.
     We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.

We should not limit inerrancy to “religious” areas of “faith and practice.” By the way, the phrase "faith and practice" originally meant everything that we believe and everything that we do. It was meant to cover everything, not to carve out some small section of truth that is different from science, history, and everyday reality. 

Article XIII.
     …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 (example: "sunrise")
  • the reporting of falsehoods (example: accurately reporting Satan's words)
  • the use of hyperbole (obvious exaggeration to make a point)
  • and round numbers
  • the topical arrangement of material (rather than strict chronological order)
  • variant selections of material in parallel accounts
  • the use of free citations
This is a very helpful list of things that are not genuine errors. When you realize that the Bible speaks in the common language of observation, the vast majority of the alleged "errors" in the Bible vanish.

Article XV.
     We affirm that the doctrine of inerrancy is grounded in the teaching of the Bible about inspiration.
     We deny that Jesus' teaching about Scripture may be dismissed by appeals to accommodation or to any natural limitation of His humanity.

Jesus viewed the Scriptures as being the authoritative and unerring Word of God. If Jesus is God, then His view of Scripture is correct and we should believe it also.

Your view of Scripture will have consequences. The difference may seem like inches at first, but the eventual result is the difference between the frigid seas of liberalism or the warm sea of Biblical truth.

Next up: The Sufficiency of Scripture...

1 comment:

  1. This is excellent and clear. Thank you!


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