Why I Don’t Hate the Word ‘Inerrancy’

I hate a number of things. Some of them are rather silly: soap operas, egg mayonnaise, cats. Some of them are deadly serious: sex slavery, adultery, cancer, human trafficking, abortion, racism. In a handful of cases, I even hate words: “moist,” “ogle,” and “pamphlet” are among the most odious. But I don’t hate the word “inerrancy.” In fact, it doesn’t bother me in the slightest.

Perhaps that’s because I’m English. My limited experience in transatlantic dialogue suggests that the word “inerrancy” is divisive in America, up there with “Texas” and “Pelosi” in the list of words most likely to prompt expressions of luminescent ecstasy in some and enraged inarticulate spluttering in others. It seems to be a tribal marker, a password that clearly divides the teams into goodies and baddies, the mere mention of which can cause both sides to run scurrying to the barricades, whether they’re faithful conservatives contending with woolly liberals, or reflective centrists contending with mindless fundies. In the UK, however, it’s not such a contentious concept.

Question Rarely Asked

In ten years of teaching, writing, and researching theology, I’ve never once been asked whether or not I believe in inerrancy. As it happens, I do. If someone was to ask me whether, in my view, the Scriptures contain mistakes or not, I would answer in the negative. Partly this is a result of theological conviction about the divine and human components of Scripture: that when God’s words are expressed by humans, neither their human aspects (authorial personality, tone, language, mode of expression) nor their divine aspects (truthfulness, authority, clarity, reliability) are compromised. Partly it’s because I’d find it strange to tell people that the whole Bible represents the word of God, and the word of God is completely truthful, but that parts of the Bible aren’t completely truthful. (I don’t mean to say that nobody can believe all three of these things but that it would be beyond my intellectual faculties to do so.) Mostly, though, it’s because of Jesus. Put simply, based on what I read in the Gospels, I cannot imagine (if we let this rather implausible thought-experiment run for a moment) Jesus being asked whether the Scriptures contained mistakes or not, and saying yes.

Having said that, I cannot imagine him being asked the question in the first place. From what we can tell, the question of inerrancy was not a live debate in first-century Palestine; nobody had bothered to distinguish between inerrancy and infallibility, caveats about the original manuscripts were infrequent, and you didn’t have to affirm inerrancy to belong to the Galilean Theological Society. In fact, most of Jesus’s famous statements about the truthfulness and permanence of the Jewish scriptures—”not one iota will disappear from the Law until all is accomplished,” “the scriptures cannot be broken,” “it is written,” “the scriptures must be fulfilled,” “David, speaking by the Spirit,” and so on—give the impression of having been largely uncontroversial to their original audiences. If there were parts of the Hebrew Bible that Jesus, or anyone else we encounter in the Gospels, regarded as mistaken (which, from what we know of first-century Judaism, would be a highly unusual view), they have left no such indication in the records we have. The idea of there being mistakes in the Torah, for example, would not have occurred to him, or to any of his earliest followers.

Not only that, but many of the biblical passages people today find the most troubling, and the most likely to be “mistaken,” are also affirmed willy-nilly by Jesus and the apostles, with complete disregard for any subsequent historical-critical brouhahas that might emerge. Creation ex nihilo, the origin of death in humans, the murder of Abel by Cain, a cataclysmic flood of judgment, the righteous judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Mosaic origin of the Torah, manna from heaven, driving out the Canaanites, the Isaianic authorship of the servant songs, and so on—it’s almost as if Jesus and his followers went out of their way to affirm and validate all of the most awkward and recalcitrant apologetic curveballs in the Tanakh, just to make life difficult for post-Enlightenment Western interpreters. It is possible, of course, that Jesus and the apostles were also mistaken, and that their affirmation of all these challenging Old Testament texts reflects nothing more than their limited horizons of understanding. (Most Christians are not prepared to go there, of course, and neither am I; those who do, though in my view misguided, are at least consistent.) But it is hard to argue for an errant Bible based on the words and actions of an inerrant Jesus.

Proper Interpretation

So when asked the street-level question, “Does the Bible contain mistakes?” I always answer, “When interpreted properly, no.” That first clause is important; after all, an awful lot of people in history have thought that the Bible says the earth is at the center of the universe, flat, and built on pillars. There is also a plethora of texts whose literal meaning cannot be their original meaning—ranging from the obviously poetic (“your breasts are clumps of dates”) to the obviously symbolic (“then I saw a beast coming out of the sea”) and the obviously hyperbolic (“cut your eye out and throw it away”)—as well as a group of other texts whose literal meaning may or may not be their original meaning (as anyone who has read Paul Copan on Joshua, Tom Wright on the Olivet Discourse, or Greg Beale on Revelation will know). Consequently, care is needed, particularly in a church context where declaring that “the Bible does not contain mistakes” may be taken as code for “the tribulation will last three-and-a-half calendar years, every single Amalekite was killed by Saul, the moon will literally turn into blood one day, the revelatory gifts have altogether ceased, and evolution is entirely bunk.” When the Bible is interpreted correctly, it is completely true in all that it affirms. When it is interpreted incorrectly, there is no limit to the nonsense we can assume it teaches.

That, I suppose, might be why some people hate the word “inerrancy”—it is damned by association. As a term, it seems to carry all sorts of baggage not associated with the claim that the Bible is all true (which, let’s face it, is a much simpler and much less convoluted word for it): intradenominational division, a Shibboleth culture whereby some people are “in” and some people are “out,” an all-or-nothing deal whereby either everything in the Bible is true or nothing is, and elevation of the Bible above Jesus as the locus of our faith and devotion. In my mind, the associations are different: evangelical conviction, diligent scholarship, confidence in the Scriptures as the Word of God, courageous leadership, and sacrificial mission. But I realize that in some circles, words get tainted (as I discovered when I first came to the United States and let it be known that I was a charismatic). In such cases, it may be the resonances of the word rather than its actual meaning that cause people problems.

But I don’t think the answer is to hate the word. If we were to abandon every word that had been tainted by poor use, we’d have to remove dozens of descriptors from our lexicon, beginning with “Christian”—only to find that the replacements we brought in were also sullied over time by clumsiness, groupthink, insensitivity, and arrogance. For the moment, then, I’ll keep waiting for the day when someone eventually asks me if I believe in inerrancy, at which point I will say yes. And if they disagree, I’ll be sure to be extra nice to them.

  • http://www.4simpsons.wordpress.com eMatters

    You hate mayonnaise? Stop the madness!

    I’m on board with inerrancy but agree that it can be a loaded term. It isn’t as pithy, but I when pointing to inerrancy I like to state the the original writings turned out exactly as God and the human writers desired and that even textual critics that are hostile to the faith will concede that they have been transmitted to us in a reliable fashion.

    I think this is especially helpful when addressing false or sloppy teachers who claim that God couldn’t get the originals right but that He is communicating with them directly and clearly now.

  • http://theoldadam.com/ the Old Adam

    Infallible is a better word.

    The message of the Bible is true and infallible.

    The texts do not have to be “inerrant”. Our Lord uses “earthen vessels” for His perfect purposes. The finite contains the infinite. Just like Jesus. True man…and true God.


    • http://www.covenantcaswell.org John Carpenter

      If the text is errant, it’s difficult for it to be infallible. Those who claimed that it can be errant about mere historical or factual issues (like authorship) without that effecting doctrine, soon succumb to the pressure of saying it’s errant regarding doctrine and practice too (for example, Paul K. Jewett’s book “Man as Male and Female”). The distinction doesn’t work.

      • http://theoldadam.com/ the Old Adam

        No…not for God it isn’t.

        What else does He have to work with down here? He uses you, doesn’t He? Are you perfect and without error?

        The Bible’s message is true. It’s infallible. It does not require every jot and tittle to be perfect.

        Have you ever related a story to someone and maybe misspoke about one of the facts? Did that totally destroy your story? it shouldn’t have.

        • Dan

          OA, in your view how do you determine which parts are true and which parts are false? How do you know where someone “misspoke”? Is this determined by error-prone flawed sinners? Or science? Is the Resurection true or false?

    • Concerted Effort

      Which, of course, has nothing to do with the Scriptures.

      If it’s infallible, it’s without error.

      • http://theoldadam.com/ the Old Adam

        There is a difference between the two words and their meanings.

        “In the beginning was the Bible. And the Bible was with God. And the Bible was God.”

        Doesn’t that sound ridiculous?

        Because it is.

        The Bible is our source for all matters in faith and life. It is true. In spite of every jot and tittle not being exactly right in every instance.

        • Concerted Effort

          You make no sense. It cannot be true and infallible, while at the same time containing error.

          What sounds ridiculous is trying to assert something is true but wrong.

          • BG


            Just because someone disagrees with you or threatens your paradigm doesn’t give you license to be rude. Words seasoned with salt and giving grace to all who hear, right?

            That said, suppose for a moment that the original words and pens of the Apostles and the scribes they dictated to were inerrant. Now further suppose that later scribes smoothed out, revised, or otherwise edited the texts they were copying. God is not absent in this process, and I firmly believe that his providence has given a Bible that is sufficient for faith and authoritative for behavior. In my opinion, I think it is an error to assume that a mistake in revision and edits in the past somehow taints the integrity of the God who inspired the authors.

            Also, infallible speaks more to unfailing in purpose than free from error. Current versions of the texts can contain scribal errors and still be employed by the Holy Spirit infallibly to produce faith.

            • Concerted Effort

              Noboby is “threatening my paradigm”. I wasn’t being rude, to my knowledge.

              When we speak of inerrancy, we are not talking about the copies per se. Inerrancy has to do with the original autographs.

          • zach

            Actually he is exactly right and he makes wonderful sense. There are a few instances in the Bible where it is clear the text has been meddled with. Such an example includes the story with Jesus and the women caught in adultery where he says “Let he who is without sin throw the first stone”. It is likely that that story was not written by the original writer but added in later. If that is the case do we throw out the whole bible because there is an error in it? No. Why not? Because as a whole, the Bible still contains the infallible message of the gospel.

            • Melody

              No but it drives me crazy when people quote it or well known Pastors give a sermon on it. What is a new Christian supposed to think when they follow along and see the footnote in their bible? The same thing with the end of Mark.

            • Concerted Effort

              The text has not been “meddled with” because of a variant reading or scribal error. If the text you mentioned wasn’t in the best manuscripts, then view it with that in mind. Doesn’t change the inerrancy of Scripture.

    • http://www.rekindle.co.za James

      I think Dan asks the key question OA, how do you determine which bits are in error without error yourself. If there is to be any stability we have to appeal to something outside of our subjective, transient interpretation and opinion.

      I would also liken inspiration to Jesus: it has a divine and a human component. The human component didn’t subtract anything from the divine component in Christ, nor does it do so in Scripture.

      I think that the character of God as light and truth speaks to the character of Scripture. On the other hand, I can see how an errant view of Scripture would speak of a God who is either unable to communicate inerrantly through weak vessels or himself capable of error. The other option would be that he chooses to communicate erroneously which is why I say it does not strike me as a God of light and truth.

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  • http://www.christianvagabond.com Christian Vagabond

    I generally agree with inerrancy, but your question regarding Jesus’ view of scripture is flawed Think of it this way: let’s say there’s a group of living writers whose work you deeply admire. Every last letter or book they have written is a treasure. Would you be willing to also say that everything they will write from this day forward will be just as perfect and truthful?

    Of course not. You have no way of knowing what they will write or if their views might change. What we can say is that Jesus affirms the Old Testament. For obvious chronological reasons, we can’t know Jesus’ view of the New Testament.We have good reason to believe it is just as trustworthy, but we take it on faith. I don’t see a conflict between an errant Bible and an inerrant Jesus. It would be problematic if Jesus wrote an errant Bible, but since flawed humans wrote it, there is room for error. I choose to have faith that scripture exists as God intended it, but I know that requires an extra leap of faith on my part that sinful humans could create something perfect.

    • http://www.covenantcaswell.org John Carpenter

      Here’s the Lord Jesus’ view of His apostles (sent ones) ministry (including their writings): “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.” (John 13:20).

      • http://www.christianvagabond.com Christian Vagabond

        That’s a circular argument. A document can’t be its own proof. If I write “John Carpenter agrees with everything I’m writing here,” that’s not evidence that you in fact do agree with my posts. There’s also the question of authorship. Plus the New Testament is much more than the Gospels. We have faith that Paul’s writings are just as divinely inspired as the Gospels, as well as Hebrews -a letter whose author has never been identified.

        I believe in what I would call “limited inerrancy”, but I recognize that inerrancy of any kind is an inherently illogical position, and the verse you cite is a good example. I believe that the extra baggage that comes with inerrancy – especially the assumption that sinful humans managed to compose documents completely free of errors or incorrect beliefs- are inconsistent with our understanding of man’s nature. But I believe that the Bible as was divinely inspired to include those errors. The messy parts aren’t a bug; they’re a feature.

        • Concerted Effort

          every argument from authority is ultimately circular. There is not such thing as “limited inerrancy”. Something is either inerrant or it’s not.

        • Bobbye

          If Scipture is not inerrant, then God does not exist. God cannot be the Creator and Sustainer of all and yet be powerless to maintain inerrant comunication with His creation. The idea that God would deliberatly include errors?… Guess we can’t trust Him, huh? Accually if the Scipture is errant then we in fact can’t trust Him! The one big sin that people tend to keep is that Genesis 3; Being as god, deciding for yourself good and evil, right and wrong.

          • http://www.christianvagabond.com Christian Vagabond

            THink of it this way: you are a devout believer. You pray with all of your heart to worship Christ and follow His teachings. You want your every waking moment to reflect His Truth.
            Have you been able to do that? No, you’ve sinned or falen short or spoken incorrectly. As you’ve grown older you read scripture differently than you did as a child or a younger adult.

            My point is that I don’t think it makes sense to set aside the Biblical authors and say that every human who ever lived was sinful, but these authors managed to write without committing a single error or having their sinful nature creep in. It doesn’t render God nonexistent any more than your sinful nature renders God nonexistent.

    • Luke

      This is an encouraging comment. I commented further down about being close to losing my Christian faith since losing faith in the authority of the bible after discovering the many obvious genealogical and logistical errors. I guess we just have to maintain faith that the important commands that affect our lives today were supervised by God.

      • http://www.rekindle.co.za James

        Hey Luke, I must say I’m sure that ticking boxes on inerrancy before signing on the dotted line is not a prerequesite at the pearly gates so let me encourage you to keep running the race set before you with endurance.

        Christianity is ultimately about your relationship with God but the thing to realise about that is that it doesn’t mean switching off your brain and conjuring up truth or knowledge about God from atmospheric fluctuations. Our source of knowledge and truth about God and, therefore, the way we develop our relationship with him is through Scripture. So I would say that a high view of Scripture is demonstrably significant but I would also say that as your relationship with God grows so will your understanding as the Holy Spirit grows your heart and mind.

        So sometimes with Anselm we, “believe so that we may understand” and sometimes we may find ourselves saying about inerrancy “I believe, help my unbelief” but all those logical contradictions and genealogical errors have explanations, many are simply (as you noted) and although the rest may be unconvincing to you I think you’ll find if you work through them that they really pose no threat to Scripture rightly intepreted.

        Hope that encourages you…

  • Daniel Broaddus

    Interesting post. I highly recommend this article written by Arthur Carl Piepkorn about the inerrancy of Sacred Scripture: http://lutherantheology.files.wordpress.com/2010/12/piepkorn-inerrancy.pdf

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  • http://www.saltformation.com Britt McCrimmon

    ” So when asked the street-level question, “Does the Bible contain mistakes?” I always answer, “When interpreted properly, no.”

    When dealing with interpretation I tend to look at church history and see if others interpret things the way I do. If they don’t then I am wrong in interpretation.

    The lie at the beginning from Satan was in fact can’t you trust what God says.

    • http://www.christianvagabond.com Christian Vagabond

      The problem is that there can be a wide variety of interpretations, even going back to the early church. Your approach can also be problematic with regards to many issues. Most Christians reject slavery, but the interpretation that the Bible endorses slavery is much older than the interpretation that being anti-slavery is truer to the intent of the Gospel.

      • Daniel Broaddus

        I’m sorry, Christian Vagabond, but slavery is NOT a doctrinal issue for Christians. However, Holy Baptism, the Holy Eucharist, Confession, etc…, are church practices that are doctrinal. And, there seems to be quite a lot of agreement about those issues in the early church.

        • http://www.christianvagabond.com Christian Vagabond

          But interpretation goes far beyond doctrine. A verse as simple as “Jesus wept’ requires interpretation. To put it another way, is it your contention that Tertullian is the most reliable post-biblical writer?

  • David Miller

    A similar word is ‘fundamentalist’. I am a fundamentalist, but the word has such negative connotations that describing myself as such would get me in a whole heap of trouble these days!

  • Graeme

    You hate (DFW’s version of) Alex Trebek’s favorite word? Mē genoito!

  • Geoff

    When dealing with Christians of the theologically liberal variety, I always go down this route. Point to what Jesus said about Scripture.

  • Micah

    I prefer the word “authoritative.”

    • BG

      That is probably a much better word than inerrant. I assert that the original texts were inerrant, however scribal errors and revisions are pretty much universally accepted by NT scholarship (search: redaction criticism). The version of the Scripture we have today might be inerrant, but it also may not. That said, I absolutely assert that the Scripture today, by God’s providence, is sufficient and authoritative for the formation of faith and regulation of Christian behavior.

  • brian

    I believe the Bible to be inerrant, but not always literal. Interpretation, of course, can and will be errant…often.

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  • http://fivesolasreformation.com/ Nicholas J. Gausling

    Tim Keller argues in “The Reason for God” that we have to start by asking: based on what we know from the historical records of and about the early Church (including the New Testament writings), should we conclude that Jesus Christ rose from the dead and proved Himself to be the Son of God? If the answer is yes, then His view of the Old Testament Scriptures (which He testified were the Word of God) logically must become our view.

  • http://flamingfundamentalist.blogspot.com/ Curt Day

    When people think that inerrancy implies literal interpretation, then sooner or later, one is overcome with “mistakes.” It is difficult for some, even seminary trained people to understand that inerrancy does not limit one to interpreting most parts of the Bible as being literally true. At the same time, there are some parts, like Jesus being both man and God where literalness is necessary. Usually, the style of writing indicates how we can understand what is written.

  • http://www.roger-pearse.com/weblog Roger Pearse

    A sound article – thank you.

  • Emerson

    “Consequently, care is needed, particularly in a church context where declaring that “the Bible does not contain mistakes” may be taken as code for “the tribulation will last three-and-a-half calendar years, every single Amalekite was killed by Saul, the moon will literally turn into blood one day, the revelatory gifts have altogether ceased, and evolution is entirely bunk.””

    Agreed with most points above, except the last one. I’d like to see the author defend how Evolution and the Bible can agree, in other words, I’d like him to refute “Creation and Change” by Douglas Kelly.

    The author is right on most of his points, but he has to concede there is a limit for which passages can be “symbolized” or “literalized”. If Genesis 1 is symbolism, then where does historical narrative start? Says who?

  • Luke

    I would truly love to believe the Bible in inerrant. I did so for my whole life up until a few years ago when I decided to explore the claimed errors in the Bible in order to prove them false to myself, life was much simpler before that. I find myself in a place now where (while I will always remain a theist) I am holding onto my Christian faith by the skin of my teeth in the face of clear errors in the bible, wrestling with how the moral commands and statements of salvation can hold absolute authority when many logistical details are clearly contradictory. A quick google can provide you with a list like this http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/jim_meritt/bible-contradictions.html#father_of_joseph and many more. About half of these supposed contradictions are in fact just a misunderstanding of the character of God, but about half cannot be explained, particularly the genealogical contradictions, even new testament inconsistencies like Jesus last words, the contradicting accounts of what was seen at Jesus’ tomb and who saw it. How do any of you maintain a belief of inerrency in the face of such clear contradictions?

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  • http://www.rekindle.co.za James

    Nice post Andrew, I’ve and some friends have been reflecting recently on why we don’t have the word “Clarity” so I enjoyed your writing.

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