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Inerrant Text ≠ Inerrant Interpretation

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I recently ran across a couple of different writers raising questions about the value of affirming inerrancy or infallibility for the Bible, both of which hinged on the link between the text and interpretation. One wondered aloud at the coherence of claiming an infallible text when you’re a finite sinner, whose faculties are limited, likely disordered by sin and self-will, and whose interpretations must therefore be flawed. The other, a little more boldly, claimed the doctrine unnecessary, only serving human arrogance by lending added weight to the claimant’s own fallible pronouncements.

While both objections are quite understandable, and the first quite reasonable, they share a common failure to distinguish between theological claims being made about the Bible itself, and those for our interpretation of the Bible. In other words, it’s the difference between inspiration and illumination, and their relationship to the text.

Inerrancy and Inspiration vs. Illumination

To be clear at the outset, inspiration is a doctrine about the origin and nature of the text of Scripture. The classic teaching on the inerrancy or infallibility of the Bible (and yes, I’m using the terms somewhat interchangeably), is also about the nature of the text God has inspired through the human authors in the past. It is, roughly, the idea that whatever the Bible speaks to, it speaks to with “utter truthfulness,” with no falsehood attached.

On the other hand, the doctrine of illumination speaks of the Holy Spirit’s work in our hearts and minds to overcome our sinful resistance to the truth of what he has inspired in the first place. Yes, it’s related to the text, but concerned with its reception, not its production or nature. While our understanding of both doctrines will affect our approach to the text, illumination more directly deals with the issue of interpretation and understanding.

To affirm, then, that God has inspired an inerrant text is not to claim that my interpretation of it is inerrant, too. That would involve a claim about illumination that no orthodox Reformed theologian would make. So what, we might ask, is the benefit of claiming this utter truthfulness of the text even while admitting the possible and, indeed, probable faultiness of all human interpretation? I can think of at least two.

Trustworthy God

The first has to do with the character of God. As Kevin Vanhoozer has shown in First Theology, the claims we make about the text of Scripture are bound up with the claims we make about the God who authored it. The two doctrines are mutually informing and, while distinguishable, are ultimately intertwined in our doctrine of revelation.

A fallible text implies either a fallible God, one with questionable concern for truth, or a distant and uninvolved God. None of these options leads me to a deep assurance of the gospel word upon which my salvation depends. As Andrew Wilson observes, “I’d find it strange to tell people that the whole Bible represents the word of God, and the word of God is completely truthful, but that parts of the Bible aren’t completely truthful.” Not exactly inspiring stuff.

On the other hand, an infallible text is bound up with the idea of a totally trustworthy, perfectly honest God who cares about effectively communicating truth to his people. Unsurprisingly, that’s the picture of God we find in Scripture. Of course, a good Reformed doctrine of accommodation will allow for a more nuanced account of just how God condescends to make himself known to us through fully human authors, language, concepts, and so forth. All the same, these questions make sense within a doctrine of Scripture that assumes a fundamentally trustworthy Author.

Reason to Struggle with the Text

Next, an infallible text gives us a deep reason to actually wrestle with it. We often hear that appealing to an inerrant text shuts down conversation and identifies one’s own interpretation with the Word of the Lord. The argument claims that a basically trustworthy, but still fallible text means we have to wrestle and humbly open ourselves to conversation with others, experience, and so forth.

I can’t say I’ve ever found this a mildly convincing argument. Yes, there is a serious temptation for believers trained in certain conservative circles to short-circuit the dialogue and to shun tension, questions, and the deep trust required to believe in the midst of questions. That can, and sadly does, happen. All the same, the higher a view of the text you affirm, the more it should lead to real struggling with the text, given that you think it’s the truth of God somehow.

When dealing with the issue of contradictions in the Bible, G. K. Beale points out that, far from cutting off wrestling and intellectual struggling with the text, a high view of Scripture’s truthfulness has led to deeper study, prayer, conversation with other interpreters, and wrestling to see how it’s true. Similarly, awareness that these are the very oracles of God should lead to a humble approach that doesn’t arrogate too much authority to one’s own understanding, but trembles at the thought of misrepresenting God’s Word.

Instead, when you have a fallible text, as soon as you get to a troubling passage, an account you can’t quickly reconcile with another, or a command you find abhorrent, you have the easy option of “just being honest,” “taking it for what it is,” and “admitting” it’s wrong. Usually this process doesn’t happen all at once, but the more you hit the delete button, the easier it is to press. Here we run up against the irony of the objection. In order to affirm a fallible text, you have to arrogantly set your own reason and cultural presuppositions in judgment over the text you’re pronouncing deviant and false.

At this point we see how inerrancy affects our interpretations. It doesn’t guarantee them in order to bolster our arrogant claims of correctness. Instead, it fuels a humble endeavor to hear the voice of our faithful God, speaking truthfully in Scripture.

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