Contemporary Challenges to Inerrancy
Current objections to the biblical doctrine of inerrancy include matters of word and act, accommodation of the divine Author to the human authors, knowledge and uncertainty, and moral objections to the text of Scripture.
Virtually every Christian doctrine has had doubt cast upon it by some people, but nothing has been more repeatedly undermined than what God has said, beginning as early as Genesis 3:1. Historically, it has been common to relativize Scripture’s authority by adding other authoritative sources; in recent times, it has been more common to question the Bible’s truthfulness, historical reliability, moral probity, and interpretive coherence, by taking away from Scripture its transparent qualities. Responding to such challenges is not the picky pastime of defensive cranks but the inevitable result of holding the same view of Scripture reflected by Jesus himself.1
In the first centuries of the Christian era, Christians entered detailed and protracted debates with surrounding pagans. Some of this debate revolved around the credibility of the Bible. The focus of that debate changed with time. Traditionally, Roman Catholics have thought of the Christian revelation concerning Jesus as a deposit entrusted to the Church and best thought of in two parts: (1) Scripture, and (2) Tradition. Although valuing tradition as something to be respected and evaluated, Protestants hold that the final authoritative revelation is Scripture itself. In other words, traditionally Catholics hold that Scripture tells the truth, but that complementary truth is found in extra-biblical Tradition, as determined by the Magisterium, the teaching authority of the Catholic Church. Protestants hold that Scripture alone reliably tells the truth. Whereas both Catholics and Protestants hold that Scripture tells the truth, by introducing an additional source of truth Catholics tend to domesticate Scripture to Tradition, while by adhering exclusively to Scripture Protestants tend to domesticate Tradition to Scripture. These distinctions are complicated by different understandings of what is included in the Canon and by complex debates regarding the sufficiency and the clarity of Scripture. For our purposes, however, the focus must remain on the truthfulness of Scripture particularly within more recent history.
More Recent Historical Perspective
Running especially through the 18th and 19th centuries (though the roots were earlier and the fruit continues to our own day), there arose a skeptical approach to Scripture, especially in French and German universities, that called into question Scripture’s truthfulness. Because clergy were commonly trained in the universities, the unbelief soon spread through the churches. Commonly these developments were not cast as direct assaults on Scripture but as a deeper and more scholarly reading of Scripture. For instance, instead of following the storyline of the Pentateuch, scholars delineated four late “sources,” labeled “JEPD,” which resulted in a radical reconstruction of Old Testament history and an implicit dismissal of many of the historical claims that sit on the surface of the text. In the New Testament, the astonishing influence of F. C. Baur (1792–1860) at Tübingen University convinced many that the dating, provenance, and authenticity of the New Testament books must be determined by one criterion only, viz. where it should be placed on the axis of the developing tension between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. All countervailing evidence—and there is a lot of it!—was dismissed as untruth, whether that untruth was prompted by error or deceit. Although some conservative Christians thought that Baur should be fired, he readily weathered the storms as he did not set himself against the sweep of Christian confessionalism.
Nevertheless, scholarly opinion was increasingly suspicious of the credibility of gospel miracles. Indeed, many scholars gave greater historical credence to John than to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, on the dubious grounds that John reports fewer miracles, and quickly turns them into discourses: thus, the feeding of the five thousand generates the bread of life discourse (John 6), and the healing of the man born blind establishes that Jesus gives light and sight. The impact of David Friedrich Strauss (1808–1874) changed all that. His massive work, in three volumes, on the life of Jesus, Das Leben Jesu (1835–36) took the position that John’s Gospel was simply not believable either as a work of history or as the symbol-laden story that liberal theologians favored. Rather, buying into materialism and naturalism, the miracles ascribed to Jesus are to be understood as creations of the early church. Christians made up these stories, creating myths to get across the theological convictions they had talked themselves into. In his later writings, Strauss unambiguously disallowed any place for spiritual reality. Here the assault on Scripture was so blatant that reactions set-in that cost Strauss his appointment at the University of Zürich. When Das Leben Jesu first appeared in English in 1846,2 one notable reviewer, Anthony Ashley Cooper, Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, declared it to be “the most pestilential book ever vomited out of the jaws of hell.”
What should be clear by this point is that Christians concerned to defend the truthfulness of Scripture found themselves confronting opponents on two fronts: those from the heritage of the medieval church, which tended to domesticate Scripture’s truthfulness by appealing to Tradition, and those from the heritage of rising philosophical naturalism, which tended toward the denial that God in Scripture has spoken the truth.
Alert readers will have noticed that although the title of this essay focuses on contemporary challenges to the Bible’s inerrancy, the essay itself has focused more attention on the Bible’s truthfulness. That is because, rightly understood, the word “inerrancy” in the theological arena has become a way of talking about the Bible’s truthfulness. Eight brief points may clarify the issues:
- Despite arguments to the contrary, the patristic sources give evidence of early Christian conviction of the truth that the Bible is without error—i.e., it is inerrant. In the fourth century, for instance, Jerome and Augustine engage in correspondence with the end of showing that the Gospels are without error, that is, inerrant—an important point in their apologetic toward pagans.3
- Certainly, the term “inerrant” becomes more frequent during the last century or two. But despite assertions to the contrary, the rise in frequency of the term “inerrancy” does not signal a new restriction on Christian understanding of the nature of Scripture but a rising concern to maintain the historic Christian understanding of the nature of Scripture in the face of the many-faceted ways in which theological liberalism was denying it.
- For a long time, the preferred word was “infallibility”: one spoke of the infallibility of Scripture more frequently than of the inerrancy of Scripture. Understood properly, they are useful complementary terms: infallibility asserts that Scripture cannot fail or prove false, while inerrancy insists there are no errors in Scripture. So understood, both expressions speak to the truthfulness of Scripture. About the middle of the 20th century, however, infallibility in some circles came to be associated with the truthfulness of Scripture’s spiritual message, even though it betrayed many historical and other errors of fact. Against this slippage, many Christians insisted on the inerrancy of Scripture, not because they were adding a new restriction but because they were maintaining the historic position that asserted the Bible speaks the truth on whatever subject it chooses to address.
- Nevertheless, inerrancy must not be confused with precisionism. Not a few reject the term “inerrancy” on the ground that to them it sounds pedantic, too precise, too narrowly focused on the picayune. But those who use the term with historical awareness know that it does not specify a certain degree of precision but affirms truthfulness, whatever the degree of precision or imprecision (which is largely determined by context).
- Inerrancy imposes no restraint on the legitimate use of metaphor, hyperbole, parabolic accounts, other figures of speech, and diverse literary genres. In other words, rejecting inerrancy on the ground that it is too literalist betrays ignorance as to what inerrancy is—indeed, as to what truth is, and the highly diverse ways in which it may be conveyed.
- The last fifty years or so have witnessed the mushrooming of speech-act theory. Here there is more emphasis on what texts do than on what they say. Consider two passages: “What you are about to do, do quickly” (John 13:27, where Jesus addresses Judas Iscariot); “Cursed be the day I was born! May the day my mother bore me not be blessed!” (Jer 20:14, where Jeremiah bemoans his own existence). Is either passage telling the truth? Is it inerrant? Of course, one might argue that it is true that Jesus and Jeremiah, respectively, said these things, but are the words themselves true? It is immediately obvious that “truth” is the wrong category for a command, like the first passage, or a lament, like the second. Because of such reasoning, some infer that it is therefore inappropriate to affirm that all Scripture is inerrant, since truthfulness and inerrancy are not the properties of certain kinds of biblical texts. But this is a slightly perverse reservation. It is one thing to say that a passage is an imperative, and therefore not appropriately labeled as an inerrant proposition, and, on the other hand, to say that such-and-such a text says something that is not true, and therefore cannot appropriately be called inerrant. To put it another way, the Christian claim is that all Scripture is inerrant wherever its truthfulness is at stake.
- At this juncture some critics balk and argue that a category like “inerrancy” is not particularly useful if it must be so carefully defined. Surely it is better to abandon the category. But in the panoply of Christian theological terms, there is scarcely a noun that does not have to be carefully defined: e.g., God, Christ, justification, faith, righteousness, sin, idolatry, and so on, all of which need careful definition. If we must abandon all terms that require careful definition, there will be very few words left for us to use.
- Finally, we must remind ourselves that we are discussing the revelation of a talking God—a God who chooses to address his fallen image bearers in human words that can be understood, believed, obeyed, disobeyed, learned, memorized: indeed, the words of Scripture are commonly treated as the words of God.4 To talk about the verbal self-disclosure of God in Scripture makes it not only possible but necessary to talk about the truthfulness of that self-disclosure. And this leads us to mention four more commonly raised objections to inerrancy, all of which revolve around inadequate understanding of truth.
Actions and Words
First, many scholars pit actions against words in order to prioritize the former and diminish the latter. This bifurcation has emerged in various ways. For example, several decades ago a cluster of scholars emphasized the actions of God as the focus of his revelation, downplaying the words of God.5 God’s revelation is in the event of the burning bush, the event of the exodus, the event of Jesus’s resurrection; the words describing those events are not themselves revelation, but merely “recitals” of the revelation. Despite some lingering adherents to this program, not many support it today. For a start, not many naked events are very significant unless words unpack them. Jesus was crucified, died, and rose again: unusual, no doubt, but so what? Don’t we need words to explain that in dying Jesus bore our sins and that God resurrected Jesus from the dead for our justification? Words are very frequently required to assign to events their meaning.
Today the more common form of this bifurcation sets Jesus the incarnate Word (John 1:1,14) over against written words: “I prefer,” the critics say, “the personal Word to merely written words.” Inerrancy has to do with words, so it can be downplayed or jettisoned. But what warrants setting the written Word against the incarnate Word? That which starts off sounding vaguely spiritual (“I prefer the personal Word”) suddenly reveals itself as a species of unbelief. Besides, the term “Word” is used to refer to Jesus (i.e., the “personal” usage) a handful of times, while it refers to the gospel or the message or Scripture itself many hundreds of times. Moreover, would it not be strange to say that the event of the incarnation is revelatory and then to ignore the fact that the incarnated One is he who insists that “Scripture cannot be set aside” (John 10:35)?
Second, it has been pointed out, rightly, that in the intricate and complex dynamic between the divine Author and the human author that generates holy Scripture, both God and human beings are truly involved in the production of the text; but some have gone on to infer, wrongly, that if our understanding of how Scripture comes to be written goes beyond mere divine dictation (reducing the role of the human writer to scribe), then one must allow that errors have been introduced. After all, they say, “To err is human” – and God has accommodated himself to human weakness. It follows, they say, that to uphold inerrancy is to squeeze out the human dimensions of holy writ. Virtually all Christian theologians use the language of accommodation to describe how God uses human writers, including their experiences and their use of language, to describe the different modes of inspiration. Nevertheless, confessional Christians insist that error is not part of the essence of what it means to be human: any individual human may say something that is unequivocally truthful, even though it is not an exhaustive statement. The many biblical texts that attest God’s glorious kindness in accommodating himself to our limitations also attest that in his providence he preserves his Word in its truthfulness.
“The Art of Imperious Ignorance”
The third of our four final challenges to inerrancy, and thus to truth, is a challenge to one’s ability to know the truth about something. “The art of imperious ignorance” is an expression coined in an important essay by the late Michael J. Ovey.6 It is well exemplified, Ovey says, in the Council of Sirmium (AD 357). Sirmium debated the pros and cons of a certain theological position, and concluded not only that they couldn’t decide, but that it was impossible to decide. In other words, Sirmium not only confessed their own ignorance, but insisted that ignorance was the only right position to take—which of course meant in practice that people could choose any position they wanted, provided they didn’t promote it as the right one. The ignorance of the Council was not a humble agnosticism but an imperious imposition. Some strands of postmodern thought follow a similar route. They claim to know, most imperiously, how much we cannot know about what the Bible is saying. If they were less certain about their epistemology they might be more certain about their ability to read.
Finally, at different periods in the history of the church, and especially so during the last half-century, some critics have sought to undermine the truthfulness (and thus the inerrancy) of Scripture by holding up to ridicule various elements of biblical ethics, including accounts of genocide, and what the Bible says about hell, homosexuality, women’s rights, and religious exclusivism. Some of these topics are briefly treated elsewhere. It is enough for our purposes to make clear how many challenges to inerrancy are in reality a discomfort with biblical truth in its own terms.
- Carson, D. A., ed. The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016.
- Carson, D. A. and John D. Woodbridge, eds. Scripture and Truth. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1992.
- DeYoung, Kevin. Taking God at His Word: Why the Bible Is Knowable, Necessary, and Enough, and What That Means for You and Me. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016.
- Packer, J. I. ‘Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1958.
- Ward, Timothy. Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009.
- Wenham, John. Christ and the Bible. Euguene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009.
- Woodbridge, John D. Biblical Authority: A Critique of the Rogers/McKim Proposal. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982.
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