Fifteen years ago, in Truth and Power: The Place of Scripture in the Christian Life J.I. Packer recognized that some Christians who will speak of Scripture’s authority or inspiration, are nevertheless scared by the word inerrancy. The word conjures up images of flat-earth enthusiasts and other embarrassments. Packer explains:
They are frightened of certain mental attitudes and stances with which they feel the word inerrancy is now inseparably linked and which in their view tend to obscure the Bible’s main message and bar the way to the best in biblical scholarship. Specifically, they hear the inerrancy-claim as challenging all comers to find mistakes in Scripture if they can–which, so they think, is an improper diverting of interest from the great issues of the gospel to the minutiae of Bible harmony, and from believing proclamation to rationalistic apologetics. (50)
Packer sympathizes with this mindset, but only to a point.
Once I too avoided the word inerrancy as much as I could, partly because I had no wish myself to endorse the tendencies mentioned, and partly because the word has a negative form and I like to sound positive. But I find that nowadays I need the word. Verbal currency, as we known, can be devalued. Any word may have some of its meaning rubbed off, and this has happened to all my preferred terms for stating my belief about the Bible. I hear folk declare Scripture inspired and in the next breath say that it misleads from time to time. I hear them call in infallible and authoritative, and find they mean only that its impact on us and the commitment to which it leads us will keep us in God’s grace, not that it is all true.
That is not enough for me. I want to safeguard the historic evangelical meaning of these three words and to make clear my intention, as a disciple of Jesus Christ, to receive as from the Father and the Son all that the Scripture, when properly interpreted–that is, understood from within, in terms of its own frame of reference–proves to be affirming. (50-51)
The doctrine of inerrancy, Packer goes on to say, should not bear directly on the task of exegesis. That is, we must not determine ahead of time what the text must or must not say based on our doctrine of Scripture. But on the other hand, inerrancy should bear on our theological method.
What it says is that in formulating my theology I shall not consciously deny, disregard, or arbitrarily relativize anything that I find Bible writers teaching, nor cut the knot of any problem of Bible harmony, factual or theological, by assuming that the writers were not consistent with themselves or with each other. Instead, I shall labor to harmonize and integrate all that is taught (without remainder), to take is as from God (however little I may like it), and to seek actively to live by it (whatever change of my present beliefs and behavior-patterns it may require). This is what acceptance of the Bible as wholly God-given and totally true requires of us. (52)
Inerrancy safeguards the Christian freedom that comes only by surrendering our independence and submitting to God unreservedly. There is no true freedom accept as a servant to Christ. And we are not faithful servants of God unless we accept all that he says to us in his word. Packer’s summary is spot on:
Any degree of skepticism about the portrait of Christ, the promises of God, the principles of godliness, and the power of the Holy Spirit, as biblically presented, has the effect of enslaving us to our own alternative ideas about these things, and thus we miss something of the freedom, joy, and vitality that the real Christ bestows. God is very patient and merciful, and I do not suggest that those who fall short here thereby forfeit all knowledge of Christ, though I recognize that when one sits loose to Scripture this may indeed happen. But I do maintain most emphatically that one cannot doubt the Bible without far-reaching loss, both of fullness of truth and of fullness of life. If therefor we have at heart spiritual renewal for society, for churches and for our own lives, we shall make much of the entire trustworthiness–that is, the inerrancy–of Holy Scripture as the inspired and liberating Word of God. (55)
The inerrancy debate is about more than just about getting our doctrine of Scripture right. It’s about the honor of God, the vitality of his people, and the fullness of truth and life we must offer to a dying and unsure world.