What Is Biblical Inerrancy? (Part 1)

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Last month, I discussed canonicity and how we got the Protestant Bible (see part 1, part 2, and part 3). This week, RTB editor Maureen Moser rejoins me for a conversation about biblical inerrancy—a topic of much debate and importance in the present age of strong skepticism.

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Ken, let’s start by defining inerrancy. I might assume that it simply means the Bible doesn’t include any mistakes, but something tells me the inerrancy doctrine is more nuanced than that.

That’s right. Just as we saw that canonicity is an implication of the Bible’s inspiration, inerrancy is also an implication of inspiration. In fact, here is the Chicago statement on biblical inerrancy. This came out in the 1970s; this is a conservative Protestant position about the Bible’s inerrancy, signed by people from many denominations (present people would be Norman Geisler and R. C. Sproul):

Holy Scripture, being God’s own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches: It is to be believed, as God’s instruction, in all that it affirms; obeyed, as God’s command, in all that it requires; embraced, as God’s pledge, in all that it promises…. 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 individual lives.

Inerrancy is an awkward word, but it essentially means that the Bible is fully and completely inspired by the Holy Spirit and since the Holy Spirit (being God) is perfect, then God’s word could not be found to be in error.

Whenever the Scripture speaks, it speaks infallibly, correctly, and truthfully about what it says about the natural world, about what it says about the salvation of human beings. And, so, if we interpret Scripture correctly, it’s never going to be in conflict with itself and it’s never going to be found to be in error.

And yet it sometimes seems that the Bible and science clash. How do we deal with that?

Yes, inerrancy doesn’t mean there might not be problems with interpretation. Maybe science is saying this but the Scriptures seem to be saying that. Well, as Hugh Ross often points out (and correctly so), science is an interpretation of the natural world; it’s not the natural world itself. Likewise hermeneutics and exegesis are attempts at interpretation, but the interpretations are not, themselves, Scripture. When science and the Bible seem to clash, it could be that there’s a faulty interpretation at play.

Consider the big bang theory. To my understanding, before the twentieth century, no one had good reason to believe from the book of nature that the universe had a singular beginning. The long-held Aristotelian view posited that the cosmos had always existed. Then along came Georges Lemaître, Albert Einstein, Edwin Hubble, and others who formulated and proved big bang cosmology.

We live at an incredible time. The discovery of the big bang and the universe’s singular beginning is so on par with creation ex nihilo, as taught by the Bible. So, for a long time, Christians believed from the Bible that the universe had a beginning, but they had no empirical evidence to support it until recently.

When I first heard about Reasons to Believe, I surprised to learn that the big bang was such excellent evidence for Scripture’s inerrancy. It was an exciting revelation. But it isn’t always science that has the wrong interpretation, is it?

True, sometimes it might be both science and theology that need reevaluation. Take the case of geocentrism. Copernicus, Galileo, and others corrected both scientific misunderstanding and faulty biblical interpretation that had stemmed from that misunderstanding.

Couldn’t some people argue that biblical interpretation needs to accommodate biological evolution? Perhaps the Bible’s account of human origins is really mythological or a concession by God to the ignorance of the ancients?

Those are great questions. I think a fair reading of the New Testament shows that Jesus and Paul thought that Adam and Eve were historical persons. I find it very difficult to claim any form of biblical authority and inspiration and, therefore, inerrancy, if Jesus and Paul could be factually wrong on central things concerning the origin of human beings. How could Jesus being wrong and Paul being wrong and Adam and Eve actually being mythical, how could that ever uphold the Bible’s truthfulness?

One of the things you have to agree to be a member the Evangelical Theological Society is biblical inerrancy. You have to believe the Bible is truthful in every area in which it speaks. To say that maybe Paul and Jesus’ knowledge of science was limited to that of the first century or that God would accommodate the scientific ignorance of Moses’ time is not a sufficient answer. I just can’t accept that statement.

To the degree that I understand the scientific nuances of the discussion about common descent vs. common design (as Fuz Rana would suggest), it seems very fluid. Some people may give up biblical inerrancy only in the future to discover that Scripture was right.

I don’t want to cavalier in any way and I believe God is the author of both Scripture and nature. However, I think Christians sometimes need to step back and say if we’re secure that Scripture teaches A while science is teaching B, then it could be that we’re just going to have to hold our position on Scripture and live in that tension of (hopefully) temporary conflict.

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Join us next week when we wrap up with a discussion of rigidity and flexibility in the Christian understanding of inerrancy.

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