Previously: The inspiration of Scripture
This is the second in a series of columns on the inspiration, inerrancy, infallibility, and sufficiency of Scripture.
When Christians say the Bible is true, we often use terms to describe the manner in which God has spoken to us through His written Word.
One such term is “inerrant.” But what does that mean?
Freedom from error
The inerrancy of Scripture means the Bible is fully truthful in all of its teachings. P.D. Feinberg writes in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, inerrancy is “the view that when all the facts become known, they will demonstrate that the Bible in its original manuscripts and correctly interpreted is entirely true and never false in all it affirms, whether that relates to doctrine or ethics or to the social, physical, or life sciences.”
The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy puts it this way: Scripture in its entirety is “free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit.”
This is important because, as theologian Millard J. Erickson notes, “if God has given special revelation of himself and inspired servants to record it, we will want assurance that the Bible is indeed a dependable source of that revelation.”
Inerrancy is tied to inspiration in that the Holy Spirit superintended the Bible’s human authors so that using their own personalities, experiences, and writing styles, they recorded His revelation without error.
Equally important, inerrancy refers to the original “autographs” that were breathed out by God and recorded by human authors over a period of 1,500 years. Subsequent manuscript copies may not claim inerrancy, although we have a treasure trove of manuscripts that give us confidence the Scriptures have been faithfully preserved and carefully copied.
There are several points to be made about inerrancy.
Approximations and quotations
First, biblical inerrancy includes approximations, free quotations, and the use of different words when describing the same event.
For example, Num. 25:9 reports that 24,000 died in a plaque, while the apostle Paul writes that 23,000 perished (1 Cor. 10:8). An error? No. Both numbers are approximations, and for the purpose involved in conveying a story, both are adequate and both may be regarded as true.
In a similar manner, quotations in Scripture are not always exact. The New Testament writers in particular seem to take liberties when quoting from the Old Testament. But there are good reasons for this:
- Writing in Greek, the NT authors either had to translate from Hebrew or Aramaic, or they relied on the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures.
- They did not have the punctuation symbols that are so common today: quotation marks, ellipses, brackets, and so on.
- They often paraphrased quotes – a common practice in verbal cultures where meaning was valued above precision.
- They sometimes alluded to Old Testament passages without quoting them.
In each case, the truthfulness of the inspired words shines through the written text.
A second point about inerrancy is that it allows for different accounts of the same events. The Gospel writers often tell their stories differently. Matthew reports that two demoniacs came to Jesus, while Mark and Luke say only one approached Him.
A contradiction? No. Wherever there are two, there is at least one. Taking all the testimony together, it’s clear that Jesus cast demons out of two people, but Mark and Luke chose to focus on Jesus’ exchange with one of them.
If Mark and Luke had said “only one” demoniac, we’d have a far greater challenge to address.
Science and history
A third point about inerrancy is that historical events and scientific matters are written in “phenomenal” rather than “technical” language. That means writers report how things appear to the eye – the sun’s shadow moving backward, the walls of Jericho falling, and so on.
We do the same thing today. For example, we may say sunrise is at 6:45 tomorrow, but we know the sun doesn’t actually rise; the earth revolves.
Even so, inerrancy cannot allow statements of fact that history or science proves untrue. If we can’t trust Scripture in the lesser details of geography, history, or human nature, how can we trust its message of salvation?
Inerrancy also allows for variety in writing style between authors, the recording of sinful words and deeds, and the departure from standard forms of grammar.
Which brings us to a summary. Erickson writes, “Our doctrine of inerrancy maintains merely that whatever statements the Bible affirms are fully truthful when they are correctly interpreted in terms of their meaning in their cultural setting and the purpose for which they were written.”
This is why the psalmist confidently affirms: “The entirety of Your word is truth” (Ps.119:160).
Next: The infallibility of Scripture