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Interpreting the Bible III – The Impact of Inerrancy

Update (1/15/09): For those in the habit of reading posts and skipping comments, I want to note that there is an important and substantial exchange of comments between Peter Kirk (Gentle Wisdom), Jeremy Pierce (Parableman), and myself that helps clarify this issue substantially.

In my first post in this series, I made the following comment in response to a quote:

While I certainly agree that the Bible is not inerrant, the rest simply does not follow. A simplistic idea of how one gets from scriptural text to doctrinal belief is posited and then discarded. An idea of the word of God that may or may not be correct (or more importantly held or not held by a community) is assumed and then dismissed.

In that quote I kind of dismiss inerrancy from consideration and focus on the idea that one can automatically dismiss the Bible as God’s word because one has dismissed inerrancy. I will continue to make the second point–inerrancy isn’t necessary to regarding the Bible as God’s word–but I need to comment further on inerrancy.

In my experience most people think that a belief in Biblical inerrancy is a critical dividing line, and that is one is asked what difference inerrancy makes, one should answer (misusing Paul in Romans 3:2): Much in every way!

But inerrancy is something that is easy to misunderstand, and perhaps almost impossible to both understand and express in a way that is acceptable to everyone. Someone is going to claim misrepresentation somewhere, even if one uses an official statement such as the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. I’m not going to work through this statement right now, but suffice it to say for the moment that I reject inerrancy, even as defined in the Chicago Statement.

But there are many different ways of defining inerrancy, and nobody really owns the term so as to control its meaning. Should one use the more academic definition? Or perhaps the most popular view is correct.

In conversation, I usually find that folks would like to define inerrancy simply as “the Bible doesn’t have any mistakes in it.” That’s pretty simple and straightforward. But does it work? When someone nuances this position, they are often accused of some kind of weasel-wording in order to pretend that clear errors don’t actually exist.

In fact, however, because of the complexity of the topic and the number of different claims that are made, one almost certainly must add some nuance to the definition in order to make any sense.

The first question is simply what Bible one is referring to. Is this a particular translation? The KJV-Only advocates would claim that the KJV is without error, and they don’t accept a claim to believe in inerrancy from those who don’t make the claim of that particular translation. They will ask, “What is your final authority? Where is an inerrant document that I can get my hands on?” So at a minimum, one must specify precisely what Bible is inerrant.

One can choose between many translations, the Bible in its source languages, some particular manuscript in the source languages, or the autographs. Each of these has interesting implications. There are few claims of inerrancy for translations in general, certainly not from anyone familiar with the process of translation. The “inerrant translation” idea is almost exclusively the product of the KJV-Only movement.

Inerrancy in the original languages sounds good to those without acquaintance with the manuscripts, but quickly falls afoul of the facts of a variety of manuscripts, each with differences in the text. Thus you will only rarely find a simple claim to inerrancy in the original languages apart from some specific claim about which text outside of popular discussion. I do get this question from lay members in churches fairly frequently. Academics of whatever theological persuasion, however, know better.

This leads to two options: 1) inerrancy of a particular text, usually asserted of the Byzantine or of the majority text, and 2) inerrancy of the autographs. Since inerrancy of a particular text also provides difficulties, such as differences in the manuscripts within that tradition, such a claim is again only rarely made, or generally nuanced so as to mean “nearly 100% accurate” which amounts logically to the second claim: Inerrancy of the autographs.

With this there is the problem that we simply do not have the autographs. Nonetheless, for definition purposes, we have a precise text at a precise point of time, even if we can’t lay hands on the precise text. Opponents of the doctrine of inerrancy, including me, wonder just how important it can be to assert that an inaccessible text has a particular attribute. But that is beside the point for my discussion here.

I hope you can see why someone who asserts inerrancy must provide some further data. When they say, “Inerrancy of the autographs” they aren’t tap dancing. They’re just getting to the point of being precise enough so that someone can understand and discuss their claim.

But now we get to just what one would call an error. Here is where opponents of inerrancy outside the field of Biblical studies can get extremely impatient. What’s an error? Well, it’s a mistake! PI is 3.0 (1 Kings 7:23)? It’s a mistake! Seven literal 24 hour days? It didn’t happen. It’s a mistake!

So let’s ask another question. It says in Judges 9:8 that “The trees once went out to anoint a king over them . . .” So did the trees “go out”? (Remember, this isn’t Narnia!) Did they anoint a king? Is it a mistake? Well, such a passage can be true on a couple of levels, including whether the words were spoken by the person quoted. If you quote a liar lying, is it a lie on your part? But of course the real point in this passage is that it is a parable, and you are not intended to believe that the trees actually did this.

I chose that obvious passage that nobody would take literally, because one popular idea of inerrancy is essentially equivalent to “the Bible is all literally true.” Even “literally true” is problematic, because I have heard it interpreted to mean that the Bible is pretty much all literal (everyone has their exceptions) on the one hand, to someone who told me that “taking the Bible literally” meant “taking it as it is intended” so that he would take a passage figuratively, while claiming to take the entire Bible literally. Personally, I think he was using the very common equation of “literally” with “true” and “figuratively” with “not-so-much true.”

There’s a very popular variant of this is to take the Bible literally at any point at which it can be taken literally. Tim LaHaye in his not-so-good book How to Study the Bible for Yourself, p. 160, says:

. . . A good rule to follow is to try to interpret each passage literally. If this is obviously not the case, then as a last resort try to find the spiritual or symbolical truth it is communicating.

Obviously he followed this principle in producing his interpretations of Revelation. I don’t have his book at hand, but I believe Dr. David Jeremiah recommended attempting literal interpretation first in the book of Revelation (Escape the Coming Night). Though I cannot recall for certain that he explicitly recommends it, I know that he practices it.

Where this view of inerrancy can be best tested, however, is in passages that might easily be taken either way. These would, in my view, include Genesis 1-2, where one might quite justifiably argue various positions on the original intent, or passages that may be read as fiction or not, such as Jonah or Job. Many mainline students of scriptures would be surprised at how many people find the issue of Ruth, Jonah, Esther, or Job as fiction controversial. For some, however, having a story like that, which is not actually presented as a parable or illustration, not be true would violate their view of inerrancy.

One of the best very short definitions of an academic notion of Biblical inerrancy is this: The Bible is without error in what it intends to convey. The problem with any short definition is that it lacks some details and nuance, but this one covers quite a lot of ground. For example, if Jonah is fiction and intended to convey certain theological truths rather than a narrative history of a certain person in a certain period, that doesn’t violate inerrancy. I have seen this stretched quite far, to the argument that one can accept inerrancy and date the book of Daniel in the 2nd century.

This argument was made by Ernest Lucas in his commentary on Daniel from the Apolos Old Testament Commentary series. He doesn’t take sides himself, but he argues that one can use either dating for Daniel and still accept the doctrine of inerrancy. This would involve understanding a great deal of prediction as history, a great deal of the story as fictional, along with the whole setting for the writing of the material. Is it possible? Indeed, most scholars believe that the setting, the story, and the predictions are all fictional, except for a very small portion that would be contemporary with, or in the immediate future of, the writer. In general, however, these same scholars don’t claim to believe in inerrancy.

I would add one more way in which one might state that the Bible is without error–by claiming that the Bible is precisely the way God wanted it, i.e. that if there is an apparent or even real error of fact, it’s in there because God wants it there. This would be hard even for me to disagree with, but I think it is so far from what anyone would hear me saying if I said “I accept inerrancy” that it would be lying for me to make the claim.

So just how does Biblical inerrancy impact interpretation, which is, after all, the topic of this series? Well, actually, as you can see, the type of inerrancy which Ernest Lucas seems to espouse doesn’t really eliminate any possible interpretation that I might claim myself. I think that it does force one to be a bit disingenuous regarding the author’s intent.

For example, if the writer of Daniel lived in the 2nd century BCE, wrote pseudonymously, invented an author and narrative or (more likely) borrowed it from folk tales, produced lengthy prophecies of the future but which weren’t really about the future, was the author lying in order to make his final prediction more convincing, or was he following literary conventions of his time? In other words, did he intend people to realize that what he wrote was largely fictional? One can debate this, but I’m afraid I would tend to support the idea that the “predictions” were developed to give weight to the rest of the book, and they would only give weight if people believed they had been written much earlier and had been fulfilled.

But in terms of Genesis 1 & 2, there is next to nothing that I would claim in interpreting this passage that could not be claimed by someone who accepts inerrancy. In other words, inerrancy and the theory of evolution need not stand opposed, provided one accepts certain literary categories for the writings in question.

Unless I get side-tracked again, which I probably will, I’m going to write on the Bible and scientific statements for my next post in this series.

Previously posted: part 1 and part 2.

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  1. Thanks.

    For what it’s worth, I use Firefox, with NoScript installed as a add-on, for safety reasons. It reports 11 scripts on this page, and blocks 4. (When I need to do something, such as comment on a blog, or see a special graphic, I allow the script that makes the process possible.) I didn’t see an add on this page, probably because of the blocked scripts.

    I though you might want to know this. I hope that I’m not preventing bread from reaching your table.

    1. You won’t see any ad in the text of the post here on the site. All advertising is in the sidebars. I know about blocking scripts, and think that’s fair for users.

      The reason I finally put Google ads in my feed was that I have a fairly large number of feed subscriptions compared to my page views, and I put the full text of posts in my feed. I think I’d rather have something like related posts in there as I doubt many people will even look at the ads, but that doesn’t appear to be an option.

      I don’t want to become obnoxious about advertising. I get some e-mail devotionals in which the devotional content is perhaps 1/10 of the e-mail and the rest is advertising. On the other hand, I don’t think that having one Google ad per post (over 250 words) in a feed should be that troubling to anyone.

      Anyhow, thanks for the concern!

  2. Thanks for this interesting discussion. My own position is not far from yours – I wouldn’t attribute to the Bible inerrancy, but I would attribute authority, the word more often used by evangelicals here in the UK.

    With this there is the problem that we simply do not have the autographs. Nonetheless, for definition purposes, we have a precise text at a precise point of time, even if we can’t lay hands on the precise text.

    Not necessarily. Some scholars suggest that the original authors may have issued different editions of their work in different copies, and that some textual variants go back to these different copies. And, especially in the OT, books may have acquired their final form in a complex and gradual way such that there never was a definitive autograph. So calling the autographs inerrant doesn’t even in principle solve the problem.

    1. Peter-your criticism regarding the autographs as a “precise text at a precise point of time” is well taken, and could even be supported by my first post in this series.

      I think “inerrancy of the autographs” is much more coherent than other versions, but it is indeed hard to pinpoint the moment that something becomes an autograph.

      In addition, while you didn’t mention it specifically, there’s the fuzzy line between textual transmission and revision. It’s a bit more controversial, but the western text of Acts, for example, leads one to question whether it is the issue of multiple revisions (a good possibility) or some kind of revision(s).

  3. On the issue Peter raises, remember that we are not talking about a view that can be made consistent with all the views out there. All we need is a coherent view for the view to make sense. For that, there needs to be some inspired version of each biblical book that existed at some time. We don’t need to know when that was, and it could involve having developed to that point by lots of editing and having been changed in some manuscripts from copy errors or deliberate transformations after the fact. For the view to be coherent, there doesn’t need to be a 100% guaranteed method of figuring out exactly which stage of development was the final form in question. All that needs to be true is that there is one stage that God counts as the final form.

    Now the more variations there are, the harder it is for us to be sure which form is the inspired form that’s inerrant. But that’s not an objection to the view itself as a coherent view. It’s just a skeptical argument about how sure of which reading we should count as the inspired one. But that problem arises without inerrancy. Inerrancy just adds one further claim that there is an inerrant form of the text. Any kind of inspiration view has to allow for an inspired form of the text, though. Peter’s view itself takes the Bible to be authoritative, so there needs to be some form of the text that’s authoritative. Inerrancy adds nothing at all to the issue.

    Conservative views on this issue (including but not limited to inerrancy) have always insisted that we don’t have infallible access to the inspired text or infallible access to the correct interpretation of the inspired text. These views go together well. Adding that you think there is an inspired text that’s inerrant and that we can have a reasonable but not infallible means of figuring it out via textual criticism isn’t any more difficult than adding that you think we can have a reasonable but no infallible means of figuring out the meaning of the text through good hermeneutics.

    So I’m totally unmoved by this kind of consideration. It doesn’t seem to me to be a serious objection at all.

    1. Jeremy – I have an informational question for you as a supporter of the doctrine of inerrancy, or at least so I read you. It seems to me that the doctrine of inerrancy is much more a doctrine of God than a doctrine of scripture. Does this seem to be a fair characterization to you?

      I do not mean that there is no impact on the doctrine of scripture, but rather that, since we are not talking about a text that is in our possession, the primary issue is about God and revelation.

      In another context I might try to debate that. At the moment, I’m wondering if my characterization is fair.

  4. I think the best thing to say about the issues with Ruth, Daniel, Jonah, and so on is the following. There are some people who think inerrancy requires thinking of such books as historical, and there are others who think inerrancy allows thinking of them as allegories or parables. I’m not sure it follows that these involve two different conceptions of the meaning of the term “inerrancy”. After all, the people who don’t think Jonah is a parable but think it’s an actual recounting of real events nevertheless have no problem thinking of Jesus’ parables as parables that didn’t really happen. So they have no problem with inerrancy allowing for parables. The dispute seems to me to involve books that seem on the surface just like the historical accounts elsewhere in the Old Testament. Some hold that the presumption is taking them to be historical. Others do not. But they might hold the same thing about what inerrancy involves.

    I don’t think Jonah is a parable, and I don’t think Second Isaiah and Third Isaiah were written by later authors but by the actual Isaiah. But I don’t think you need to deny inerrancy to hold that Jonah is a parable or that Second Isaiah and Third Isaiah were written by later authors in the Isaianic tradition. I just think you have to make a mistake about the historical background and how such works could be taken in context. I’d say the same about pseudonymity in New Testament epistles and about the dating of Daniel. I hold that inerrancy, combined with a more accurate view than the majority view on historical matters, will lead to conservative positions on such issues. But it’s not inerrancy itself that makes the difference. It’s a judgment on such other issues. I should mention that Craig Blomberg and Tremper Longman have made similar points in published works, and they’re both pretty conservative inerrantists.

    I should say that one place this applies in my own thinking is that I don’t think Genesis’ early chapters give a chronological historical account, but I do think they teach what God did without error. Six-day creationists claim my view is at odds with inerrancy, but it’s not, and I don’t think this is a different view of inerrancy. It’s a different view of how inerrancy applies because of a view about how genre works. I don’t share the mainstream consensus about genre with respect to Jonah and Daniel, but I do on Genesis to some extent.

    Longman has a view that I think is implausible on the authorship of Ecclesiastes. If you accept the historical and literary assumptions I favor, his view is incompatible with inerrancy. But he doesn’t share those assumptions, and he remains an inerrantist despite a view that I can’t as an inerrantist hold. Robert Gundry does something similar with midrash in Matthew, denying things I think inerrancy requires, but he does so by denying assumptions that I think are obvious, and he remains an inerrantist.

    This is really just another instance of the same phenomenon we see with egalitarianism. Some egalitarians (e.g. Luke Timothy Johnson, Paul K. Jewett) agree with complementarian exegesis but deny inerrancy about the moral teaching of the New Testament. Others (e.g. most evangelical egalitarians) accept assumptions about the text that complementarians find implausible or even demonstrably false. Given those assumptions, egalitarians need not deny inerrancy as Johnson does. But he finds them implausible, as complementarians do. Given such a view, it takes denying inerrancy to be an egalitarian. But without such a view, it does not. The disagreement isn’t about what inerrancy means but about other assumptions and views.

    1. Jeremy – thanks for your two substantial comments, which I think add greatly to the value of this post.

      My primary point is that a belief in inerrancy does not necessarily lead to literal interpretation, but rather has very close to the same range of options as I would espouse while denying inerrancy and you have helped greatly in substantiating that view.

      I would note that I publish two books, Evidence for the Bible and Christianity and Secularism, written by Elgin Hushbeck, Jr., who accepts the doctrine of inerrancy. I remember one lengthy discussion with him in which we compared interpretations on a number of passages. While we frequently differed in our interpretation, those differences were very, very rarely predicated on our respective views on inerrancy. That discussion would largely substantiate your point on 2nd & 3rd Isaiah, Jonah, and so forth.

      I’ll probably add a note at the beginning of the post encouraging people to read through the comments.

  5. If what you mean by a doctrine of God is something to do with how God reveals things, then maybe. But I’m not sure exactly what you mean. Maybe the doctrine of God informs the doctrine of scripture, but I’m pretty sure I’d want to distinguish them, since scripture is not God, despite how opponents often usually misportray inerrantists as participating in idolatry of scripture.

    1. What I mean is that if we insist on inerrancy of the autographs, but errors are acceptable in transmission, however small a factor that may be thought to be, then the doctrine of inerrancy has less of an impact on how I think about scripture as I have it, and more on how I think about how God works in revelation to the first generation.

      If I were trying to argue about inerrancy, I would find this to be a major point. I honestly don’t understand the importance of inerrancy. If Isaiah makes a mistake transcribing what he hears from God, however small, it’s a problem, but if the first scribe who copies Isaiah’s work makes a mistake, as long as it’s not doctrinally critical, then it’s OK?

      In my view of inspiration, God’s message only remains error free in God’s mind and as God sends it–never as we receive it. We are incapable, whether prophet or not, of perfectly receiving the divine message.

      I think that in practice inerrancy is really only a difference of degree from my own beliefs, rather than something fundamental. I think the message is perfect in God’s mind and providentially protected in reception and transmission. Those who accept inerrancy keep it perfect for one step further. But in no case do I get to read perfectly inerrant scripture.

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