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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Answering Bible Difficulties

Don Stewart :: What Is the Doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy?

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What Is the Doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy?

Answering Bible Difficulties – Question 1

One of the terms used in describing the nature of the Bible is “inerrancy.” While inerrancy is not a biblical term, but rather a theological term, it does express a biblical truth. In fact, there are a number of theological terms that are not found in Scripture which believers have used for centuries. An example of this is the word “Trinity.” Trinity is not a biblical term, but it sums up what the Bible has to say about the nature of God. In the same manner, inerrancy sums up the truth about what the Bible has to say about itself—it is without error.

A number of important points need to be made about the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. They include the following:

Inerrancy Is a Relatively New Term, but a Clear Biblical Concept

While inerrancy is a new term, coined within the last one hundred years, it describes a concept that the Bible clearly teaches about itself and that the church has held from the beginning—God’s Word is without error. Over time, the terminology in describing the nature of the Bible has changed. The term, “inerrancy” came into common usage as a response to those who claimed to have found errors in Scripture. It was merely expressing the concept of God’s truthfulness in a way that responded to the charges that were made against it. Therefore, the fact that the precise term, “inerrancy” is not found in Scripture, in the historic creeds, or in confessional statements, is not relevant. Historically, the church has built all its doctrines out of the teachings found in Scripture, which has been believed to be authoritative and completely truthful in all that it teaches.

Consequently, the real issue is not about the term, “inerrancy”—the real issue is this: Is the Bible totally trustworthy in all that it says. It is the concept that is important, not the particular term that is used to describe the concept.

The Doctrine of Inerrancy Draws a Line Between Professing Christians

The concept of inerrancy has become a divisive issue among those who profess to be Christians. Those who place their trust in their own powers of reasoning and their ability to critically judge the Scripture reject the doctrine of inerrancy. Unfortunately, a number of Bible-believing Christians have fallen into this trap. While still professing faith in the God of the Bible, they also claim that His Word contains errors.

On the other hand, those who submit to the authority of Scripture have no problem in acknowledging the doctrine of inerrancy. While they do not have explanations for every difficulty, they have faith that the ultimate Author of Scripture, God, has given the human race a revelation of Himself that is consistent with His character, and thus it is error-free.

Some Believers Have Made Careless Statements in Defending Inerrancy

There is something else that has to be mentioned. Those who defend inerrancy admit that not all defenders of the doctrine have done this in a clear and reasoned manner.

Examples can be given of over-zealous believers who have made careless statements in an attempt to preserve this doctrine. In their desire to defend the inerrancy of Scripture they have opened themselves up to criticism and ridicule.

Indeed, some people have attempted to make the Scripture much more precise than it intends to be. They attempt to insist that every statement is meant to be scientifically precise or exact. However, this is not the case. There are a number of places in Scripture where the language is meant to be imprecise or ambiguous. We should always allow the context to determine whether the writer is speaking in generalities or is trying to be precise. Let us not make the Bible say more than it is attempting to say.

Others, in an attempt to defend inerrancy, have denied such legitimate disciplines as textual criticism. Textual criticism is a legitimate field of study which attempts to recover the original text of Scripture. It is wrong to say that such a quest is unnecessary. By saying things like this, it gives the impression that Christians who believe in the inerrancy of Scripture refuse to face difficult issues which arise. This is certainly not the case.

There are still others who have claimed that inerrancy is a direct teaching of the Bible, rather than acknowledging that it is the logical implication of what the Bible says about itself. Again, this is saying more than the Bible says.

All of these shortcomings are irrelevant to the issue as to whether the doctrine of inerrancy is or is not true. The fact that some misuse the term is not the real issue. The correctness of the doctrine has to be decided from a consideration of what the Scripture says about itself and whether or not the evidence supports the biblical claim. It is simply not true that the belief in inerrancy naturally leads to erroneous views of interpreting Scripture.

The Eternal Salvation of a Person Is Not Determined upon Their View of Inerrancy

While inerrancy is an important belief, the eternal salvation of an individual is not dependent upon a person’s view of the subject. That is determined solely upon ones relationship with Jesus Christ. However, inerrancy is an essential, foundational concept and its importance should not be minimized.

The Doctrine of Inerrancy Defined

“Inerrancy,” or “infallibility,” means that when all the facts are known, the Bible, in the original autographs, when properly interpreted, will prove itself to be without error in all matters that it covers. These include areas of theology, history, science, and all other disciplines of knowledge—they will be in perfect accord with the truth. The Bible, therefore, is totally trustworthy in everything that it records or teaches.

The Definition of Inerrancy Expanded

We will now expand this definition of inerrancy. The following observations need to be made about what we mean by the doctrine of inerrancy:

1. When All the Facts Are Known, the Bible Is Inerrant

First, we emphasize that the Bible will prove itself inerrant when all the facts are known. As finite human beings, we do not know all the facts. This is where faith must come in. It is wrong to accuse the Scripture of being in error in a certain place when our knowledge may be limited. Ultimately, the Bible will prove itself to be true. Time and time again the Bible has proven to be accurate in places where it was formerly suspected of inaccuracy. Therefore, in areas of difficulty, we wait for further information to solve the problems.

2. The Bible Is Inerrant Only in the Original Writings

Inerrancy only deals with the original writings of the authors of Scripture. There is no claim that the various copies of the manuscripts made throughout the years are inerrant. Neither is there any claim that any one translation of the Bible is inerrant.

However, this is not to say that the manuscript copies we presently have are corrupt or that we cannot trust recent translations of the Bible (such as the English Standard Version, the New International Version, and the New English Translation). To the contrary, these and other modern translations are based upon a solid textual foundation. Furthermore, the message is loud and clear. Therefore the inerrancy of Scripture comes through in the modern translations.

As we have mentioned in an earlier question, it is likely that later writers of Scripture possibly edited some of the earlier writings; such as the five books of Moses. If this is the case, then the editing by these prophets would have also been under the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, when we say that only the originals were without error, this would include any later additions or editing to a particular biblical book which was done during the biblical period. We limit any editing to the biblical period because there were only limited times in history in which God divinely inspired the writing of Holy Scripture; this was not something which was happening constantly.

This brings us to another important point. Inerrancy extends to the writings of the different authors, not the writers themselves. It is the finished product that is error-free, not the individuals who wrote the documents. The Bible says:

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 competent, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16, 17 ESV)

It is the Scripture, the final product, that is God-breathed, not the writers themselves.

3. The Bible Is Inerrant Only When It Is Properly Interpreted

This point emphasizes that Scripture is inerrant insofar as the Bible is properly interpreted. Proper interpretation consists of asking, at least, the following questions:

First, we want to know the identity of the human author and the identity of the audience to whom he was writing.

Next, we want to know the occasion or purpose for the author writing this work; why was it composed? Then we ask, what was the background (both cultural and historical) of the people or individual to which he wrote? The truth of Scripture is expressed accurately within accepted cultural norms when it was written.

We also want to know what the words meant in context, in their original language, to the people, or to the individual, to whom the document was written at that particular time in history

It is also important to discover how precise the author is attempting to be in what he says. What is the text intending to teach? Is the author speaking in approximations, or is he trying to be precise? Matters of precision and accuracy are to be determined in light of ancient standards in the culture where the document was written, not by modern standards. These standards of precision should apply when determining whether or not an author is in error.

These issues must be taken into consideration when attempting to interpret the Scripture.

4. The Bible Is Without Error or Completely True in All Areas in Which It Speaks

When we say the Bible is without error, or completely true in all that it says, we mean there are no statements in the Bible which are falsely reported and no teachings which are inaccurate. Every statement, every event, is recorded for us truthfully. There are no deceptions or inaccuracies, whether willful or unwillful, in the pages of Scripture.

This, however, does not mean that every statement found in the Bible is true. For example, every time the devil spoke, he lied. Yet the lies that he uttered are accurately recorded in Scripture. The real issue is truthfulness, and the Bible tells the truth in all that it says and teaches.

This last point emphasizes that inerrancy extends to all areas in which it speaks. The Bible makes no distinction between religious matters and non-religious matters. Truth is truth whether it is spiritual truth or other kinds of truth. All matters in Scripture are dealt with in a truthful, or an error-free way. This includes areas of history, science, and geography as well as theology. Issues of science and history, however, must be evaluated in light of the intention of the author, and the degree of precision he is attempting to use. It is unfair to make the writers of Scripture conform to modern standards of scientific precision and historical writing.

Also, in areas of science, we must be careful not to make the biblical writers say more than they are attempting to say. On the other hand, we should not make them say less than what they wanted to say. Again, the key is to discover what they were trying to say, and the degree of precision they were trying to say it with.

Beyond the Term, “Inerrancy”: the Bible Is Totally Trustworthy

While it is important to believe and teach that the Bible is inerrant in the statements that it makes, we must realize that the term, “inerrancy” is not sufficient in and of itself. Inerrancy does not explain all the data we find in Scripture. The Bible is more than a number of true assertions or statements that God has given to humanity. Scripture contains statements of worship, ethical commands, and statements of God’s faithfulness. While these statements are true, they cannot be verified in the same way that we can verify historical statements such as Pontius Pilate being the governor of Judea, or that Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians about six hundred years before the time of Christ.

In addition, “inerrancy” is a negative term. It says there are no errors in Scripture. However, this is not saying enough about the nature of Scripture. Therefore, we must go beyond the term, “inerrancy” and say that everything recorded in the Bible is totally trustworthy. This includes parts that cannot be verified. In other words, Scripture is true in all that it says, not just the historical facts. Consequently, when we use the word, “inerrant,” when discussing the nature of Scripture, we must realize that what we are ultimately saying is that the Bible is absolutely trustworthy in all that it records.

Summary – Question 1
What Is the Doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy?

The doctrine of inerrancy teaches that the Bible, when properly interpreted, does not make any mistakes or contain any legends or myths. There are not any mistakes in recording historical events, or stating theological truths. The Bible is not deceitful or fraudulent in any way. This is only true in the original autographs of Scripture - not copies or translations. Inerrancy extends to areas of theology, history, science, and all other disciplines of knowledge. Consequently, everything written in Scripture can be trusted as being recorded accurately.

It is simply not true as some have contended that the belief in inerrancy naturally leads to erroneous views of interpreting Scripture.

However, the term, “inerrancy” is somewhat limited, for there are many statements in the Bible that cannot be categorized as errant or inerrant. What needs to be emphasized is that these statements are totally trustworthy in all that they say. Therefore, when we use the term inerrant, the emphasis should be on the total trustworthiness of Scripture.

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What Are Some Important Clarifications to the Doctrine of Inerrancy? Next Section →
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