The Albatross of Inerrancy?
Many evangelical churches’ and colleges’ professions of faith contain a statement on the inerrancy of the Bible. The Bible, so it goes, is inspired by God and is inerrant in the original manuscripts. This belief certainly has its staunch–and I mean staunch!–proponents, but it seems to me that a great many people are, frankly, embarrassed by this doctrine. Attempting to engage with broader theological concerns myself, I am more than aware of what a theological albatross it can be. In fact, I have for a couple of years now attempted to avoid the topic altogether. I have realized the cowardice of this approach, and so I am going to offer some reflections here. Your responses are, of course, welcome.
The famous statement of this belief is found in the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy, which came out of a conference in 1978. The term seems to have first popped up, however, in the latter parts of the 19th century. Since the Chicago statement is the most often referenced, I will try to give a brief summary and explanation.
The name of the statement is somewhat unfortunate; it is indeed concerned biblical inerrancy, but as part of a larger constellation of concerns about the nature and role of the Bible within the church. The overarching intent is to make explicit the belief that the church is to attempt to subordinate itself to the scriptures. Contrary to the criticisms that are bandied about, the statement largely proceeds theologically, and does not attempt to scientifically establish the inerrancy of the text. Rather, it is a confession of faith about the nature of the Bible. It confesses that God has given us just these texts, with just these words, as authoritative revelation for his church. In statements 12-16 (out of 19), we find the explicit affirmation and denials about inerrancy. Article 12 states:
We affirm that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit.
We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.
Article 13 claims that inerrancy is proper as a theological term, denying that the ancient worldviews of the authors somehow negate inerrancy. Article 14 affirms the unity and consistency of scripture and denies that any apparent discrepancies can “vitiate the truth claims of the Bible”. Article 15 states that inerrancy is grounded in the way that the Bible itself speaks about and uses scripture. Finally, article 16 claims antiquity for the doctrine of inerrancy, denying that it was an invention of the Prostestant scholastics or a reaction to biblical criticism.
The inner passion of the statement is to ensure that the church puts herself under the authority of the Bible, rather than set up some theological, philsophical, ethical, cultural, or historical standard by which it will then pronounce judgment on the Bible. The statements on inerrancy are to be interpreted in this light, for as soon as one can pronounce “error”, one has become a judge. Of course, someone might object that the attempt to pronounce “inerrant” is itself the rendering of judgment. This would be correct, unless the Bible itself is making a claim to inerrancy and the church is merely submitting to this judgment. The Chicago statement hears this claim in the OT references to scripture, and in Jesus’ use of the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. It hears this judgment rendered in the commissioning of the apostles and their writing to the churches. It sees this claim confirmed in the centrality that the Bible has had for the thought, practice, and worship of the church throughout history. The confession of inerrancy, then, is the attempt to submit to the authority of Jesus as it is exercised through the Bible.
Notice that the doctrine of inerrancy does not preclude certain interpretations of the Bible. It does not mean that one has to adopt an unscientific attitude about science or history. It merely states that we cannot allow the canons of these disciplines to trump the canons of holy writ. Again, the issue is one of authority. Neither does inerrancy claim an absolute perspicacity for the Bible. The statement affirms difficulties within the text: allowing that there might be apparent discrepancies and tensions on the material levels. It does not ask us to pretend that these are not there. Rather, the profession is that there is a unity that lies behind these factors. Part of our faithfulness, then, will be to wrestle with these difficulties. Finally, the fact that Christians differ over the way in which to interpret certain texts should not necessarily be a mark against the doctrine of inerrancy. The statement is not about the inerrancy of our interpretations of the Bible, but about the authority of the Bible—even over our interpretations. Thus this doctrine, understood as a confession of faith in the Bible’s authority, should lead us to ever greater humility.
The statement about the doctrine of inerrancy not being a reaction to biblical criticism is both true and false. It is true in the sense that the doctrine is a ressourcement of the way that the church has used and trusted the scriptures throughout the centuries. It is false in the sense that there is something decidedly new here. The terminology employed and the context have changed. Inerrancy was born in the age of modernism, an age that specializes in totalitarian claims. The church in this age has been faced with all manner of totalitarian claims: science, history, historicism, rationalism, secularism, etc. In the age of the ‘ism’ inerrancy declares that our allegiance is to God and his revelation.
One oft-noted problem with inerrancy is its tendency to become a totalitarian claim of its own. We think that this, and only this, is God’s revelation to us. Now possessing the magic book, we have God and his word at our disposal. This tendency is due to our sinfulness and our captivity to our culture more than it is due to the doctrine of inerrancy. In fact, it is only through our attentive reading of the Bible that we see that the scriptures themselves are revelation to the extent that they lead to Jesus Christ as the “one Word of God which we have to hear” (Barmen). The Bible itself points beyond itself to the telos of all creation: Jesus Christ. Thus, even this oft-repeated theological criticism of inerrancy is itself rooted in the fundamental intention of the doctrine—that we hear and heed the Word of God as authoritative above all else.