One of the hallmarks of an Evangelical view of the Scriptures is that they are inerrant, without error. In our EFCA Statement of Faith, Article 2, The Bible, we affirm the Scriptures are “without error,” that is they are inerrant: “As the verbally inspired Word of God, the Bible is without error in the original writings, the complete revelation of His will for salvation, and the ultimate authority by which every realm of human knowledge and endeavor should be judged.”
What is meant by inerrancy, what we have referred to as “without error”, is vital to grasp. It is one thing to affirm the Bible is inerrant, it is another think to know what we mean by that claim
One of the most helpful and clarifying treatments of inerrancy was written by Paul Feinberg, a former professor of Systematic Theology at TEDS, who is now with the Lord: “The Meaning of Inerrancy, in Inerrancy, ed. Norman L. Geisler (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980), 267-304. This work was instrumental in forming and shaping my view of inerrancy during my time at seminary. I have referred to it often since and recommended it numerous times to others. I include a summary of this excellent essay that still warrants a careful read.
Inerrancy means that when all facts are known, the Scriptures in their original autographs 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.
- No doctrine of inerrancy can determine in advance the solution to individual or specific problem passages.
- Inerrancy is a doctrine that must be asserted, but which may not be demonstrated with respect to all the phenomena of Scripture.
- Inerrancy applies equally to all parts of the Scripture as originally written (autographa).
- Inerrancy is intimately tied up with hermeneutics.
- Inerrancy is related to Scripture’s intention.
- Inerrancy does not demand strict adherence to the rules of grammar.
- Inerrancy does not exclude the use either of figures of speech or of a given literary genre.
- Inerrancy does not demand historical or semantic precision.
- Inerrancy does not demand the technical language of modern science.
- Inerrancy does not require verbal exactness in the citation of the Old Testament by the New.
- Inerrancy does not demand that the Logia Jesu (the sayings of Jesus) contain the ipsissima verba (the exact words) of Jesus, only the ipsissima vox (the exact voice).
- Inerrancy does not guarantee the exhaustive comprehensiveness of any single account or of combined accounts where those are involved.
- Inerrancy does not demand the infallibility or inerrancy of the noninspired sources used by biblical writers.
The conclusion of this paper concerning the doctrine of inerrancy may be summarized as follows: (1) the term inerrancy, like other words, is subject to misunderstanding and must be clearly defined; (2) inerrancy should be defined in terms of truth, making a number of the usual problems mute; (3) while inerrancy is not the only word that could express the concept here associated with it, it is a good word; and (4) inerrancy is not the only quality of the Bible that needs to be affirmed.
Here are a number of final thoughts.
First, inerrancy has a history which is important to understand as we articulate and give a defense of the doctrine in the present day
Second, there has been confusion regarding what inerrancy means, and that confusion not only persists, it has grown. In the past generation the challenge rose among those who affirmed limited inerrancy. Today a number of challenges have been raised by former Evangelicals who once affirmed but now deny the doctrine of inerrancy.
Third, some claim that the term inerrancy dies a thousand deaths through all of the qualifications, caveats or concessions made in its definition. But that is not the right way to understand it. Rather than qualifications they are applications of the meaning of inerrancy. The applications are what we would expect from God’s revelation written in the Scriptures.
Fourth, though one might use a different term to communicate the same truth about the nature of the Scriptures, I am not sure what that term might be. Thus, I think it is important to continue to use the term, and we must work hard at defining it.
Fifth, it is vital that the term inerrancy does not become for Evangelicals merely a shibboleth, a litmus test and nothing more. In the classic text affirming inerrancy, Paul also states the goal or purpose: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
Finally, what is included above is a good working definition and understanding of inerrancy but it is not the final word. Much work remains. As good and helpful as Feinberg’s essay is, and as important as a statement like The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy may be, we are now living in a postmodern day in which new issues and questions have been raised which we must understand and to which we must respond in our defense of the Scriptures.
This important truth is one of the themes we will address in our upcoming Theology Conference on The Doctrine of the Scriptures. John Woodbridge will address the history of the Scriptures and inerrancy. We will learn this has been the consistent and persistent view of the Church. Kevin Vanhoozer will focus on the meaning and significance of inerrancy and hermeneutics in our contemporary, postmodern day.