Many students I teach in Bibliology come from Christian schools, homes, or have been in the Church a while. Yet, I quickly discover they have major misconceptions about the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. One popular misconception is they think biblical inerrancy is based on an ancient reading of the Bible. That is, they think some old man or council, after collecting the biblical manuscripts, read through them all, and upon not find any errors (or corrected them if they did) pronounced the Bible inerrant. Another misconception is that inerrancy is true simply because the Bible says so. However, these misconceptions could not be further from the truth.
I recognize there are things in the Bible we do not yet fully understand. Some passages are hard to interpret. Some interpretations are hotly debated. However, many things in the Bible are plain and simple. Indeed, the essential teachings or doctrines are readily agreed upon. “The main things are the plain things” as the saying goes. Yet, biblical inerrancy is not based on any person or group reading through the Bible looking for errors, and it does not suffer the pain of circular reasoning.
Here are five questions to guide us in discovering the right reasons for biblical inerrancy. All the answers can be unpacked from the following statement:
The Bible, which is the word of God, cannot err.
1) Where Does Inerrancy begin: “God” or the “Bible”?
Rather than beginning with the Bible, we begin with what we can know about God apart from the Bible. First, God exists, and we can come to that conclusion without the Bible. Indeed, as one ancient writer explains,
Because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power, and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.(Romans 1:19-20, NASB)
One’s acceptance of God may be informal as when one sees creation and concludes God must have created it and sustains it, or formal, as when one gives a valid and sound argument for the existence of God. One could also accept God’s existence by faith based on the authority of another such as a teacher, a text, parent or pastor. None of these are mutually exclusive ways to believe God exists.
Second, one should reason from the existence of God, as the quote implies, to the fact that God is immaterial (not material) and eternal (not finite) having no beginning or end. That is, God is pure existence. Such existence must be perfection or goodness itself; not simply approaching good, or maximally good, but identical to absolute Goodness or perfection. God, perfection itself, could never create something imperfect. Such can only produce what is infinitely good. This also stands for what God communicates to His creatures, which must always be good or true. Again, all this we can reason to apart from anything in the Bible.
2) Why is the “Bible . . . the word of God”?
The Bible is a collection of 66 books that, from beginning to end, claims to be the word of God and proves to be the word of God. First, it claims to speak for the one and only true God from Genesis to Revelation. It proves this claim by offering a description of God identical to the one offered through reasoning about creation to a sustaining Creator. The Bible says God’s divine nature is pure existence (Exodus 3:14), eternal (Psalm 90:2), immutable (Malachi 3:6), perfect (Matthew 5:48), and cannot lie (Titus 1:2). There can only be one God, one such being that is pure existence. Therefore, the God of the Bible is the one true God (Deuteronomy 6:4). Second, the Bible was written by prophets who offered multiple miracles to the people they knew to confirm they were speaking for God. Such miracles are clearly in the category of what God alone can do. They create life from non-life (Exodus 8:19) and raise the dead (1 Kings 17:17-24). Third, they offered to their future readers precise predictions hundreds of years in advance (Daniel 9:25-27). Finally, we know historically that Jesus of Nazareth claimed to be God incarnate (John 8:58), the promised Messiah who God raised from the dead. This same Jesus taught that the Bible is the word of God from the mouths of the prophets (Luke 11:49-51) and promised the same prophetic ability for his immediate disciples and apostles (John 14:26). Such signs are unmistakable from the true God and used to back up the spoken and written word of the prophets. God, because He is absolute perfection, would never allow real miracles or prophecy to be done through a false teacher or false religion. So, the religion that contains multiple miracles and prophecies that only God can do is the true message from God. These truths can be discovered by anyone’s reading of the Bible, believer or not.
3) How is the “Bible . . . the word of God”?
Peter and Paul give us the best description of how the Bible is inspired by God. Peter says,
But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.(2 Peter 1:20-21, NASB)
Note that the origin of prophecy is God. It is through a human prophet. It is verbal or in words. It is the prophet’s original words spoken (or written) from God that carry the divine authority from God. Written copies and translations of those words are not technically inspired but can only carry its divine authority to the extent they preserve the meaning of the originals. Paul says, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16, NASB). Note that Paul says it is the written text (Scripture) that is inspired (breathed out) by God and this applies to “all” or “every” Scripture. That is the entirety or whole of the written text (=Scripture). It is not limited to this part or that part or this topic and that topic in the text. It is all that is written by the prophet under divine inspiration.
4) What does “cannot err” mean and not mean?
The philosopher tells us that truth is that which corresponds to reality. The Savior tells us that the word of God is truth (John 17:17), indestructible (Matthew 5:17-18), infallible (John 10:35) and has divine authority to rebuke even the highest of creatures (Matthew 4:4, 7, 10). Hence, inerrancy (without error) follows from the perfection and power of God.
Inerrancy guarantees the truth of all the Bible teaches, implies, and entails whether spiritual (unseen) matters or factual (seen) matters. So, when the Bible speaks of a truth in history (a person, place, or event) or science (how the heavens go) it is so. Likewise, when the Bible speaks of how to get to heaven it is so. As Jesus said to Nicodemus, “If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (John 3:12).
However, inerrancy does not imply that everything recorded in the Bible is true or even right. There are lies in the Bible (Genesis 3:4) and evil acts (Genesis 4:8), not everything recorded is approved. What is true is that someone lied or did evil as recorded in the Bible, not that the lie is true, or the act is right. Inerrancy does not mean that everything said must be mathematically precise, that all quotations must be verbatim, or that the truth revealed must be exhaustive. It does not mean that we must hold all the personal or cultural beliefs of the writers. It only entails that we must hold beliefs that are affirmed or taught in Scripture. Finally, it does not mean everything in the Bible is literal. There are many figures of speech used and therefore many ways truth can apply to reality. Indeed, you may need your grammar text for this, as it can apply literally (Mark 1:16), allegorically (Galatians 4:23-24), metaphorically (Isaiah 55:12), similarly (Isaiah 7:2), analogically (2 Corinthians 5:7), symbolically (Hebrew 9:7-9), hyperbolically (Judges 7:12), phenomenologically (Joel 2:31), informally (Numbers 11:21), synecdochically (Matthew 6:11), and metonymically (Matthew 8:8; Luke 7:6) (See Dr. Richard Howe’s presentation “The Concept of Truth in the Inerrancy Debate, Revisited”).
5) Is there an argument for biblical inerrancy?
Yes, and the argument for biblical inerrancy is quite simple:
- God cannot err.
- The Bible is the word of God.
- Therefore, the Bible cannot err.
We know from reasoning about creation that God cannot err. We know the Bible claims to be the word of God and proves to be the word of God. Therefore, the Bible cannot err.
As my logic teacher would concur, there are only two ways to deny this statement: “The Bible, which is the word of God, cannot err.” One is to deny that the Bible is the word of God. The other is to deny that God must always speak the truth (or be perfect). I have yet to meet an evangelical Christian willing to say the Bible is not God’s word or that God can err. Yet, if you agree that the Bible is the word of God and God is perfect, then you must conclude the Bible cannot err. In the end, to deny or alter the inerrancy of the Bible is to attack the divine nature of God and the Son of God who taught it was completely true. Yes, inerrancy is as old as the Bible and like all truth, it cannot go away. But it can be forgotten, misunderstood, poorly reasoned, and attacked. Hopefully, more will see biblical inerrancy properly understood and reasoned. For only inerrancy maintains the divine authority of biblical teaching, the main things, the plain things, even the difficult in between things we may fully understand one day. As one prophet says, “The grass withers, the flower fades, But the word of our God stands forever” (Isaiah 40:8, NASB).