What Is Meant by Biblical Inerrancy?

Paul Derengowski, ThM

 

In another article the notion was dispelled that the Bible was full of contradictions and errors by asserting that the typical criticisms leading to allegations that the Bible is contradictory or erroneous were the products of either ignorance of the context of a given passage, neglect to recognize the particular genre, or forgetting that regardless of the charge, the original text given by God cannot by definition be erroneous.  It is this last point that will serve to answer the question of just what is meant when asserting that the Bible is inerrant.  While some cringe over the idea that the Bible is inerrant, and may choose to mince words to avoid having to make an absolute stance on the subject, it nevertheless is an integral doctrine upon which Christianity rests, since an errant word from God would immediately call into question everything that Christianity represents, but would also call into question the character, if not the very existence, of God himself.

Before defining what inerrancy is, it is probably best to define what it is not, and what it does not entail.  Inerrancy does not mean that every word in any particular translation of the Bible is flawless.  God did not dictate to those whom He moved to write His revelation when they sat down to write and record what was impressed upon their mind, much less did He dictate to subsequent copyists the copies that they made of the original documents.  Hence, there are going to be transcriptional “errors” and variants among the thousands of copies, despite the fact that meticulous care was taken to try and preserve the biblical text.  That stated, though, no critic of the Bible should be overindulge with glee at the concession and prospect that the Bible contains “errors” in the copies and versions, since no “error” or flaw has any bearing upon Christian doctrine.  Furthermore, since it has never been demonstrated that an actual “error” exists in the biblical text, a more proper designation might be that there are difficulties which exist in the biblical text that already have been explained, or that an explanation is pending.

Inerrancy also does not cover some of the claims and statements of those who obviously uttered falsehoods.  For example, in Genesis 3 when the serpent assured Eve that she would not die for rebelling against God, or that one of the results for rebelling against God would be that she would become a god herself, are obvious falsehoods.  Men and women have been dying ever since Adam and Eve’s fall into sin, and no one will ever become a god one day (Is. 43:10).  Yet, the serpent’s words are preserved in the inspired text to give a fuller story of not only the human dilemma, but of the gracious intervention of God as He moves in human history to achievement His plan of redemption amid the lies and distortions of some of the characters that appear in the Bible.

Inerrancy moreover does not imply strict adherence to reporting in exhaustive detail on every person or event in biblical history.  Hence, there are approximations, similes, metonymies, metaphors, analogies, hyperboles, and the list of grammatical nuances and figures of speech go on and on.  The point is, although the Bible is inerrant as to its content, the biblical writers had no intention of writing a technical document where absolute precision was used to convey its message.  Furthermore, God Himself, for whatever reason, was not compelled to preserve subsequent copying of the original text, even though textual critical analysis tells us that what we currently have in our possession is 98-99% comparable to what the original biblical documents that comprise the Bible had to say.  In fact, biblical integrity in doing justice to the text of the original biblical texts is unprecedented in antiquity among other works of literature of similar type or age.

What inerrancy is, though, is God’s effort to preserve the truth of the Bible.  Hence, everything it has to say, though not exhaustively in many cases is true, whether about science, history, theology, death and dying, the afterlife, the role of civil law, et cetera.  Alleged contradictions or errors are not in the Bible itself, but in the interpretation of the person alleging the error, meaning that hermeneutical method—or the art and science of interpretation—is extremely important when addressing biblical integrity.  In fact, before any Christian addresses a particular charge brought on by a skeptic of the Bible, he should (1) make sure that his method of interpretation is sound, and (2) ask the skeptic what his method of interpretation entails as well.  For the Christian, (1) The Bible is the Word of God; (2) God cannot err (Heb. 6:18; Titus 1:2; Rom. 3:4); (3) Therefore, the Bible cannot err. 1  For the skeptic, obviously the Bible is not the Word of God, God doesn’t exist, and hence the Bible is full of errors and contradictions.  What seems to be an impasse predicated upon personal opinion is in fact a matter of hermeneutics.  And if the critic is unwilling to discuss his hermeneutic, or if he does not have a hermeneutical method which will allow the Bible to speak for itself, much in the same manner as one would put a witness on the stand during a trial, then there really is no need to respond to charges of error and contradiction until the question of hermeneutics is resolved.

Therefore, what is meant by the Bible being inerrant is simply that what is recorded within its pages is true.  Inerrancy only applies to the original text of the Bible, even though those difficulties and issues that exist within subsequent translations have no bearing upon Christian faith and practice.  Inerrancy does not change erroneous statements from various biblical characters into truth, nor make them true from the outset, but merely helps to disclose salvific history and God’s place in it.  Finally, inerrancy does not imply exhaustive reporting of the details, but only those things which God thought important for the edification of humanity.  And in the words of the preeminent biblical scholar and textual critic Sir Frederick Kenyon,

It cannot be too strongly asserted that in substance the text of the Bible is certain.  Especially is this the case with the New Testament.  The number of manuscripts of the New Testament, of early translations from it, and of quotations from it in the oldest writers of the Church, is so large that it is practically certain that the true reading of every doubtful passage is preserved in some one or other of these ancient authorities.  This can be said of no other ancient book in the world.  Scholars are satisfied that they possess substantially the true text of the principal Greek and Roman writers whose works have come down to us, of Sophocles, of Thucydides, of Cicero, of Virgil; yet our knowledge of their writings depends on a mere handful of manuscripts, whereas the manuscripts of the New Testament are counted by hundreds, and even thousands…The Christian can take the whole Bible in his hand and say without fear or hesitation that he holds in it the true Word of God, handed down without essential loss from generation to generation throughout the centuries. 2

Notes:

  1. See Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology, 4 vols. (Minneapolis: Bethany, 2002), 1:494.
  2. Sir Frederic Kenyon, Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1958), 55.

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