what’s wrong with inerrancy?

The doctrine of inerrancy is a point of contention among many Christians. For some it simply cannot be made to work with the Bible, but for others it is a foundational doctrine without which one’s faith is set adrift and certainty is lost. Rather than address the whole doctrine, in this post I want to consider the role of the autographs — the original documents rather than the many copies of them — plays in thinking about inerrancy. Famously one part of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy reads:

We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original.1

There are, however, some significant problems which are not generally addressed.

Associated with this doctrine is the notion of “verbal plenary inspiration” which asserts that the extent of inspiration reaches to the very words that make up the text, not merely the message or concepts contained therein. This notion is inextricably linked to the unique place given to the autographs since it is undeniably true that there are at least minor differences between all the copies of ancient texts that we have.

Furthermore, some object to anything less than verbal plenary inspiration, as Charles Ryrie argues in his Basic Theology:

Change the words and you have changed the concepts. You cannot separate the two. In order for concepts to be inspired, it is imperative that the words that express them be also.

Yet there are good grounds to argue that Ryrie’s assertion here is not only incorrect, but unbiblical. There are a number of problems with the entire scheme which I think need to be raised and addressed:

  1. Verbal plenary inspiration is unbiblical. Passages which are used to support the notion generally do not claim quite as much as those arguing from them do. More significantly, where biblical authors quote other portions of the biblical text, they regularly do so without regard for preserving the precise wording of the other text. Indeed, when NT authors quote from the OT, they never preserve the exact words (they always use a translation which changes every single word from one language into a completely different language!).

    Where passages are quoted (predominantly in the NT), the writers were quite happy to quote rough translations of the Hebrew without any apparent distinction in the authority they ascribed these rough translations and that which they would ascribe the autographs.

  2. It overlooks the inevitable place of interpretation in creating meaning. Meaning does not inhere in a single word, it is derived from broader context, and context often extends beyond the written text to the social, cultural, historical, and broader linguistic context in which the text was composed.

  3. In both Hebrew and Greek the terms used to refer to words are not restricted in reference to individual lexemes. They can, and do, refer to concepts, messages, or larger units of meaning. To employ biblical verses which refer to “words” in support of the idea of verbal plenary inspiration often overlooks this significant point.

  4. Why would God go to the trouble of ensuring that the very words of Scripture in the autographs were always exactly the right words where other words would not do, but then not go to the trouble to preserve those for future generations? (Arguments that we can reliably reconstruct the autographs fail, it seems to me, because they are usually heavily based on the New Testament and are less reliably applicable to the Old, and because anything short of absolute certainty in reconstruction seems to leave this question unanswered.)

So what is a biblically valid view of inspiration? I would argue that the Bible is inspired and inerrant in the meaning it seeks to convey. Sometimes this may have implications for the actual words used, but it makes better sense of the evidence on a number of significant levels while still taking seriously the claims the Bible makes for itself:

  • It accounts for the way the NT writers treat translations of the OT as bearing equal authority with the original text,

  • it allows NT writers to make changes to the wording of quotes to clarify the underlying idea that is already present in the text,

  • it allows for modern translations to still be regarded as the authoritative word of God, and

  • it overcomes the problem raised that God went to the trouble to ensure the autographs were absolutely perfect but then failed to preserve that perfection for all future generations.

Now perhaps there are good responses to these issues which can be made, so I’m open to being convinced!

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  1. Ronald Youngblood, (ed.), Evangelicals and Inerrancy: Selections from the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984) 233.

3 thoughts on “what’s wrong with inerrancy?

  1. Seems to make good sense. Some orthodoxies within Judaism treat the words themselves as sacred…quite apart from any meaning they might impart.

  2. You make some good points and things which I have struggled with down the years. There are also competing theories of original language inspiration as well. i.e. that the Gospels were originally composed in Aramaic/Hebrew and translated into Greek which further complicates the doctrine of inspiration that is taught in most Bible colleges. One assumption that most western/Greek scholars don’t really explicitly come out and verbalize is that the Septuagint is inspired which is problematic to say the least. If the translated OT is inspired what is the problem with any other translation of the OT being inspired? But somehow the translation rules that apply to the OT scriptures don’t apply to the New Testament.

  3. Hi Steve, you’re right about the LXX (Septuagint). It is often used by the NT writers and treated as inspired, which was really my point. I don’t, however, think there’s a very strong case for an Aramaic or Hebrew original for any of the NT writings although if there were then it wouldn’t bother me.

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