by Jeremiah Stevens
This is a guest post by Kossuth's pastoral intern, Jeremiah Stevens. Jeremiah is currently serving at Kossuth in various ways while also studying at Indianapolis Theological Seminary. One of his areas of study this semester has been the doctrine of inerrancy, so we asked him to share a bit of his study on this topic with the church.
Sometimes a clarification of what a doctrine means, and perhaps even better, what it doesn’t mean, can be even more helpful than a defense of a doctrine we all assume that we already understand. Our belief that the Bible is God’s inerrant word is a good example. When I read what some “ex-vangelicals” or “de-converts” write about their stories, it often seems that one of their first steps toward unbelief is thinking that Biblical inerrancy means and implies things that it simply does not.
“Inerrant” is a word that simply means “without error,” and when we call the Bible “inerrant,” we are saying that nothing it says is wrong or untrue. I find this definition especially helpful:
Inerrancy means that when all the facts are known, the Scriptures in their original autographs1 and properly interpreted will be shown to be wholly true in everything that they affirm, whether that has to do with doctrine or morality or with the social, physical, or life sciences. 2
There are lots of good parts to that definition, but the one I wish to highlight here is this: in order to know what a passage of Scripture affirms, that passage of Scripture must first be properly interpreted. Let’s look together at two key implications.
First of all, it is possible to believe the Bible to be inerrant and still interpret it wrongly. A belief in biblical inerrancy does not solve our questions of interpretation for us. Notably, inerrancy does not imply that we ought to interpret the Bible “as literally as possible”. The spirit behind this idea is admirable, but ultimately it doesn’t allow the authors of Scripture, themselves, to set the terms for how we interpret their writings. Instead, we have to let the literary features of each book and passage determine what kind of interpretation is most in line with the author’s purpose. Otherwise, in an extreme case (but one I have personally come across) we could be led to doubt the truthfulness of Psalm 104 because of the fact that the earth moves around the sun.
Second, and perhaps even more importantly, the truth that the Bible is inerrant does not support a privatized, “just me and my Bible” approach to interpretation. The fact that the Bible is true in all that it affirms does not imply that a single, isolated reader of the Bible will be able to rightly identify what a given passage intends to say. God gave the books of the Bible to His people to effect, document, and apply His covenants with them. Our faith, and our Book, are inescapably public and communal. We need other readers of the Bible, both living and deceased, to teach us, walk alongside us, and keep us in line with the gospel. So many who have abandoned the faith have gone astray at precisely this point. They begin to have serious doubts about the Bible, and their response is to embark on a private study of the Bible to “see for myself what it really says.” The results are predictably discouraging.
Ultimately, the issue of inerrancy is a subset of the question of the Bible’s authority. Let’s be submitted readers and hearers of this great gift from God, and interpret and understand each beautiful part of it on its own terms (not ours), together in humble community with each other and with the Church through the ages.
1 The “original autographs” are the physical copies of a book written by its original human authors. We don’t have any of these still around, but we have enough copies-of-copies that through comparing them we can be very, very certain that we know what the original wording of the autographs was in all but a handful of cases. If you want to know more about the science of comparing these copies-of-copies, I recommend reading New Testament Textual Criticism: A Concise Guide by David Alan Black (Baker Academic, 1994). It’s 80 pages long and (as of this writing) available on Amazon.
2 “The Meaning of Inerrancy.” Inerrancy. Edited by Norman L. Geisler. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980). p. 294. For more very well thought-out clarifications about the doctrine of inerrancy, see “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy” (Chicago, 1978). The text of the statement is available in many places online, including https://www.etsjets.org/files/documents/Chicago_Statement.pdf.