Inerrancy and Interpretation: An Extended Review of Five Views of Biblical Inerrancy

What is biblical inerrancy? At one level, it is pretty simple and straightforward. As Christian philosopher and apologist Norman Geisler says, “The Bible is the Word of God, and God cannot err; therefore, the Bible cannot err.” If the Bible cannot err, the Bible is inerrant. Broadly speaking, I support this logic.

Such logic, essentially means, that when we read the Bible, we can have the confidence that God is speaking truth to us, through the sacred text. A so called “Bible difficulty” is due to either an error with the translation, a faulty exposition being given about what the Bible says, or because of some misunderstanding on the part of the reader. The problem is never with God’s Word itself.

Pretty clear, right? Well, as they say, often the “devil is in the details.” Different Christians sometimes have different ideas of what they mean by “inerrancy,” and these differences can have diverse consequences in the details.  Digging into those details has led some people to be encouraged in their faith in times of doubt, while raising more doubts in the minds of others, and thereby providing fuel to the skeptics’ fire. How can this be?

It all depends on how “inerrancy” is defined and defended. Have you ever thought about how the four Gospels treat Peter’s “three” denials of Jesus?


The Long and Shorter Approaches to Biblical Inerrancy

I recently finished reading Zondervan’s Counterpoint book, Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy (edited by J. Merrick and Stephen M. Garrett, 2013), but as I was preparing this review, it stirred up a fair amount of thought and reflection. On and off over the years, I have wrestled with the topic of “biblical inerrancy” a lot (perhaps, too much).

Revisiting the topic by soaking into Five Views of Biblical Inerrancy has helped me to sort out a number of things, that in my view, have never been adequately addressed by previous scholarly nor popular treatments on the subject. As a result, this turned out to be a much longer blog post than I originally anticipated, including a kind of historical survey of other significant books on the topic. But instead of breaking things up over multiple posts, I feel compelled to present it together as one, single book review essay, in an effort to avoid misunderstanding. In short, Five Views of Biblical Inerrancy is very, very helpful, but it is a challenging work of constructive theology. You can find an introduction to the issues discussed in the Five Views book when it was originally introduced here on Veracity over a year ago.

So, if you just want a shorter read on the topic and cut to the chase, I have summarized my thoughts on biblical inerrancy in these previous Veracity postings:

  • Mustard and Chocolate — all about the challenge of having a respectful and honest conversation about biblical inerrancy within the church.
  • Domino Theology — about the danger of building your faith on a theory of inerrancy, instead of Jesus Christ Himself.
  • Henry Morris and the Case of the Missing Signature — a little history about why inerrancy became such a big deal in 20th century evangelicalism, and its prospects for the church today.
  • Inerrancy Summits and Valleys of Interpretation — why contemporary attempts to rally the evangelical church around a common commitment to biblical inerrancy tend to falter, when the more critical concern for the average Christian is over how to properly interpret the Bible .

And now, for those who are ready to tackle it deeper… let us dig in…do you mind if I give you some history first?

Why Inerrancy Can Be Difficult

Some thirty plus years ago in college, I read a book that was recommended by my pastor, Dick Woodward, though he was somewhat awkward in doing so. Dick had been greatly challenged by the book, but he harbored some reservations about it. It was a book that was intended to sound a wake up call to a slumbering church, but many critics, such as J. I. Packer, questioned the tactics used by the author.

The author, Harold Lindsell, was then a prominent evangelical Christian leader, an editor for Christianity Today magazine. As I began to read the book, Harold Lindsell’s Battle for the Bible made a great deal of sense for the first few chapters. Lindsell had warned that evangelicalism was in crisis, as various evangelical Bible scholars, Christian colleges and seminaries were beginning to question the inerrancy of the Bible.

As a young believer, eager to understand the Bible as God’s Word, I was greatly troubled. Why would people who claimed to know Jesus go against the Bible? What possible motive could there be for a Christian denying the Bible? I was just as alarmed as Lindsell was about the decline within the evangelical movement. Even if it was only a slight compromise here and there, it anticipated a slippery slope down towards apostasy. I wanted to storm the gates of those compromising Christian institutions and yell, “Traitors!”

So, you might be befuddled to imagine the cognitive dissonance I eventually felt when I got to another chapter later in Lindsell’s book. This was where Lindsell got into some specific biblical passages where “discrepancies” existed within the text. As a believer in biblical inerrancy, Lindsell was confident that such “discrepancies” could be readily resolved, though in some cases, it might take a little work. Lindsell was trying to show that such “contradictions” in the Bible were never really “contradictions” to begin with. He sought to demonstrate that sensible explanations exist, that would acquit the Bible from the charge of making an error.

I was about to learn that the “devil really is in the details.”

Harold Lindsell's Battle for the Bible (1976) sounded a call for the church to come back to its roots in the Bible. Unlike other books, Lindsell named the names of other evangelicals he thought were compromising the inerrancy of Scripture. Even sympathetic critics today conclude that Lindsell's book was divisive and unhelpful, but that his basic concern was indeed correct.

Harold Lindsell’s Battle for the Bible (1976) sounded a call for the church to come back to its roots in the Bible. Unlike other books, Lindsell named the names of other evangelicals he thought were compromising the inerrancy of Scripture. Sympathetic critics today conclude that Lindsell’s book was divisive and unhelpful, but that his underlying concern was (and still is) right on target.

For example, all four Gospels report that Jesus predicts that Peter will deny Jesus three times, on the night of Jesus’ arrest before the crucifixion. However, Lindsell noted that in all four Gospels, the details of each of Peter’s denials taken side-by-side could not all be reconciled to one another. In order to resolve the discrepancies and preserve inerrancy, Lindsell’s “solution” was to suggest that Peter denied Jesus not just three times, but rather, he denied Jesus six times (Lindsell’s explanation is quite involved: scroll down the post referenced from this link to see an example of how this all works out).

So, what was I to do with this? If I went along with Lindsell’s strict view of inerrancy, it became clear from reading this book that Peter denied Jesus six times. But I had four separate accounts in the Gospels, one from each evangelist, all agreeing that Peter denied Jesus three times. Do I believe what biblical inerrancy says, or do I believe what the four evangelists in the Bible say?

Does this sound confusing?

You bet!

Now I knew why pastor Woodward was a bit cautious about this book by Harold Lindsell. As a fairly new believer back then, when I tried to fathom the fascinatingly complex, yet technically possible, reasoning offered by Lindsell to support his view of Peter’s “six” denials of Jesus, it really threw my world for a loop. In principle, I was willing to go along with Lindsell because I wanted to believe the Bible. But on the other hand, it simply never occurred to me that reading the Bible in that way would make things so complicated. It was as though Lindsell’s version of “inerrancy” was making the Bible seem really confusing and convoluted. I know that some found Lindsell’s proposal to be compelling and satisfactory. I did not. Instead of bolstering my confidence in the Bible, The Battle for the Bible had the most opposite effect.

Nevertheless, I did not give up hope. Ever since reading The Battle for The Bible back in my college years, I have sensed that there is something important about the doctrine of biblical inerrancy that still needs to be upheld by Christians who love the Bible as God’s Word. But whatever “biblical inerrancy” is, I have felt terribly uneasy and frustrated by attempts like Harold Lindsell’s that try to defend it. Lindsell was right about mounting a defense of the Bible, but the execution of his method raised more problems than it solved. In other words, just because the Bible is inerrant, does not mean that human attempts to defend inerrancy are without error!

Worse than that, for years I tended to avoid reading those passages of the Bible where such so-called “Bible discrepancies” existed. I only wanted to stay within the “safe” parts of the Bible. The problem with that strategy is that there is really no “safe” part of the Bible. The Bible was never meant by God to be “safe.” Rather, God uses the Bible to call us to make a radical commitment to follow Jesus… and that is never “safe.” So after years of sidelining the topic of “inerrancy,” I decided to tackle this newer book on Five Views of Biblical Inerrancy to get a dose of reality.

I am so glad I did.

NOTE: Before I go on any further, I would urge the Veracity reader to read what New Testament scholar, Craig Blomberg, has to say about Peter’s three(?) denials of Jesus. There are other ways of dealing with Bible difficulties than the way Lindsell tried to do it… and Blomberg believes in inerrancy! The use of paraphrase is appropriately within proper use in the New Testament Gospel genre. So, if you find Lindsell’s “six times” proposal compelling… (or troubling!), it would do well to remember Proverbs 18:17, “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.”

Why “Five Views” May Not Be Worth Your Time

If you have never thought much about “biblical inerrancy,” then Five Views of Biblical Inerrancy  may not be that helpful to you. It can be a rather all-consuming debate to follow. Here is why: The sage words of C.S. Lewis bear some reflection:

A negative proposition is harder to establish than a positive. One glance may enable us to say there is a spider in the room; we should need a spring-cleaning (at least) before we could say with certainty that there wasn’t (An Experiment in Criticism. C.S Lewis, p. 117).

In like manner, it is much, much easier to defend the idea that the Bible is essentially truthful, whereby God is telling the truth to us in Holy Scripture. This is a positive proposition, as opposed to the negative proposition of “the Bible is without error.”  The Bible is a pretty big book, after all. You would have do a lot of spring cleaning to be convinced that there are no errors in the Bible, or at least no significant errors, that might impinge on your respect and reverence for God’s Word. Websites such as Errancy.org, SkepticsAnnotatedBible, and this chart from the BibViz Project list hundreds of “alleged Bible contradictions.” I do not know about you, but there are only 24-hours in a day, and I have other things to do in my life other than to hunt through the Bible to make sure there are no errors. The “spring cleaning” approach to establish your confidence in the Bible can be quite overwhelming.

For example, progressive Christian blogger, Rachel Held Evans, tells the story of when she was a teenager and she was starting to have her doubts about the Bible. A Christian friend recommended that she read Gleason Archer’s massive Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties. Archer dedicates 480 pages to resolving hundreds of these “Bible difficulties.” But while Archer has provided a significant resource for working through various issues, that has frankly helped a number of people (including myself), I can also appreciate why Rachel Held Evans became discouraged. Unfortunately, reading this book only made her problems worse, because she never knew that half of those “Bible difficulties” Archer addressed even existed!

Books like Gleason Archer's Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties have helped countless believers wrestle with specific challenges to biblical inerrancy. Most "discrepancies" in the Scripture can be easily resolved. On the other hand, such massive tomes can prove intimidating and discouraging to others who struggle with doubts about the Bible.

Books like Gleason Archer’s Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (2001) have helped countless believers wrestle with specific challenges to biblical inerrancy. Most “discrepancies” in the Scripture can be easily resolved, even without the aid of scholarship. On the other hand, such massive tomes can prove intimidating and discouraging to others who struggle with doubts about the Bible.

There has to be a different way to think about this…. and there is! To focus on C.S. Lewis’ positive proposition regarding the central claims of the Bible’s truthfulness, such as the core doctrines associated with the life, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and his identity as the Jewish Messiah, is a much more rewarding endeavor. Christ, and Him crucified and risen from the dead, is that “spider” in the room. If you can readily affirm the Bible’s overall trustworthiness at its major points, you can deal with those relatively minor, troublesome problems associated with so-called “Bible discrepancies,” all in due time. In my mind, this is a much better track to follow, and it avoids the pitfalls entailed by the negative proposition often associated with the “inerrancy” debate.

So, if you feel intimidated about the “inerrancy” discussions within the evangelical church over the past 40+ years, but you still are interested in how to best approach the general topic of the Bible’s authority, you might want to take a pass on Five Views of Biblical Inerrancy and start with something briefer, more positive in approach, and less polemically-oriented. I would personally recommend N.T. Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today, that gives a contemporary restatement on why biblical authority is vitally important today, without getting lost “down in the weeds” on the particular details regarding “inerrancy.” If that is where you are at, stop reading this blog post any further and go and buy N.T. Wright’s book!

Why “Five Views” Can Help You Work Through the Doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy

Okay. I have given you yet another chance to bail out. So, if you are still with me, then let’s keep going…

The reality is that the controversies surrounding biblical inerrancy are a part of the milieu of being an evangelical Christian today: It is in the air of contemporary conservative evangelical Christianity. Many Christians simply state their view affirming biblical inerrancy, and they hope that all of the difficulties associated with the negative proposition simply go away. Others take up the challenge to answer the skeptics. Sadly, a number of these efforts to provide answers become heated debates within the church. Some groups champion their understanding of “inerrancy,” labeling others who do not share their views as being “compromisers.” The situation can become quite confusing to the honest seeker and eager believer who is simply trying to work through their doubts about the Bible.

This is why I am glad that a book like Five Views of Biblical Inerrancy exists. If I had this book available to me about thirty years ago, it would have probably saved me personally a lot of headache and doubt…. and for someone prone to second guessing what people tell me, even pastors in a pulpit or talking heads on a Christian TV station, this is exactly the type of book I have needed to work through these issues on a broader level.

In this Zondervan Counterpoints book, we are presented with the perspectives of five different scholars regarding what biblical inerrancy is. Four of the five scholars affirm biblical inerrancy, but they do so in different ways. On one end of the spectrum, Al Mohler, the head of Southern Baptist Seminary, offers what might be described as the classic, traditional view of biblical inerrancy as articulated by the Council for Biblical Inerrancy through the 1970s document, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. Three scholars, Michael Bird, Kevin Vanhoozer, and John Franke, offer more nuanced understandings affirming inerrancy, with varying degrees of agreement with and critique of the Chicago Statement. The other scholar, Pete Enns, formerly a professor at the conservative Westminster Theological Seminary, apparently at one time held to inerrancy, but now he has since rejected the language of “inerrancy” as representing a misleading description of how we would expect an “inerrant” Bible to actually behave.

The book’s format is like this: Each scholar in turn first gives us his understanding of biblical inerrancy, followed by the challenge to provide an answer to three different Bible difficulties that may impinge on the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. In turn, each of the other scholars offers a critique of the first scholar’s essay. Rather than give you a highly-technical review in an already lengthy blog post, I would rather point you towards other, more well-informed reviews, and then give you some overall perspective on the essays in the book:

N.T. Wright's Scripture and the Authority of God (2013) is a contemporary restatement emphasizing the Bible's supreme authority in matter's of Christian faith and practice. Wright affirms the priority of the Bible without getting bogged down into the technical details often associated with "inerrancy."

N.T. Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God (2013) is a contemporary restatement emphasizing the Bible’s supreme authority in matters of Christian faith and practice. Wright affirms the priority for Christians to get “back to the Bible,” as articulated in this summary essay, without getting bogged down in the technical details often associated with “inerrancy.” Refreshingly different.

But before I continue, I should address something important: The idea of “five views” about biblical inerrancy may trouble some Christians. Some may think of this is a “black and white” issue: either the Bible is inerrant or it is not. But this all assumes everyone is on the same page as to what “inerrancy” really means. The idea of “inerrancy” then can become a type of shibboleth, where careful thought is rejected in favor of maintaining some party line. However, in this book, Five Views has the advantage of hearing a set of voices that approach the issue from differing angles, which helps the reader appreciate various nuances that a “black and white” approach falls short on. Please allow me to explain this a bit by discussing two reasons why I like this book:

The first and most important reason why I liked Five Views is because of the general tone of the discussion. Obviously, when it comes to something as important as understanding the inerrancy of the Bible, emotions tend to flare up. But for the most part, the dialogue between the various scholars was quite charitable. If we can not discuss these type of important issues without a gracious posture towards others who might see things differently, then we have a much deeper problem than simply the doctrine of inerrancy.

The second reason why I appreciate Five Views is that it demonstrates that there is no one single understanding of inerrancy that commands uniform consensus within the church today. This does not mean that all views of “inerrancy” are correct. Some approaches to inerrancy are faithful to what Scripture actually is and some are not. Before one jumps the gun to try to defend the inerrancy of the Bible, one should make an effort to properly define what is actually meant by “inerrancy.” There are a range of possibilities as to how inerrancy has been defined, showing what inerrancy is, while also showing what inerrancy is not, so any discussion about inerrancy requires some humility, as well as some careful listening. God knows the full story, but we humans do not.

Voices at the Opposing Ends of the Spectrum: “The” Traditional View

In reading Five Views, I found that the most challenging and disturbing viewpoints presented came from the two extremes, represented by Al Mohler and Pete Enns. Now, I must confess that there are a lot of things I like about both Al Mohler and Pete Enns. But in this debate, you could not have any two positions more diametrically opposed to one another.

Concerning Al Mohler, I appreciate his commitment to biblical inerrancy and what it signifies in terms of doctrine. Belief in inerrancy is not an indicator of one’s salvation. Nevertheless, it marks out the parameters for determining genuine Christian belief with respect to other doctrines. One could still be an evangelical in a loose sense and not hold to inerrancy, but one could not be consistent in being an evangelical if one does not uphold inerrancy.

I got that. Mohler models what it is like to have a winsome, submissive reverence for Scripture. Mohler is clearly a step up from what I had read in Harold Lindsell some years ago. This is all good and agreeable so far. Amen for that! The problem for me with Mohler’s view, among other things, is that he seems the least open of the book’s contributors to considering evidence from outside of the Bible as a type of aid in having a better and more faithful interpretation of the Bible. He would “not allow any line of evidence from outside the Bible to nullify to the slightest degree the truthfulness on any text in all that the text asserts and claims” (location 752, Kindle). Technically, I would agree wholeheartedly with Mohler. However, unless I have misunderstood him, there seems to be an implicit assumption that Mohler already knows what “the text asserts and claims.”  

Does one detect a tad of hubris in this statement? Is Scripture inerrant or is Mohler’s interpretation inerrant? There is a big difference. By stating things as he does, Mohler appears to be artificially limiting the interpretive possibilities available to the Bible student in the effort to gain the most faithful, proper grasp of what God is seeking to communicate to us.

The advantage of taking a good look at the evidence from outside of the Bible is that it can help to keep us honest. Sometimes, we can become so beholden to our traditional ways of reading the Bible that we become unable to realize that our tradition can sometimes get in the way of reading the Bible faithfully and correctly.

For example, it was evidence outside of the Bible from Copernicus’ astronomical calculations that convinced Christians generations ago to rethink what the “text asserts and claims” (to borrow from Mohler). It was pretty much a given five hundred years ago to think that the sun moves about the earth, and that that the sun literally rises in the morning and literally sets in the evening, “just as the Bible says” (Ecclesiastes 1:5). Today however, practically all Christians, including Al Mohler, believe Psalm 93:1‘s declaration, that the world is fixed and can not be moved, should not be interpreted literally (though it is clear that a curious minority of folks still have not received the memo!).

If we really believe that “all truth is God’s truth,” then we need not fear considering evidence that comes from outside of the Bible. In considering such evidence, and to the credit of Mohler’s argument, we may come to the conclusion, that such extra-biblical evidence is not compelling enough to alter our understanding of the Bible, and therefore this evidence needs to be reinterpreted in the light of Scripture. This is fair enough. On the other hand, such evidence may give us the further insight required to better understand the text of Scripture itself! To close off that field of inquiry simply because it may challenge our traditional reading of the text would be wrong-headed.

Voices at the Opposing Ends of the Spectrum: “The” Traditional View Rejected

Likewise, the same type of critique regarding Al Mohler’s approach can be made in the opposite direction against Peter Enns’ “non-inerrantist” position. I was particularly interested in Enns’ essay since his contribution in Five Views indicates a shift away from the views expressed in his controversial 2005 book, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, when he still sought to use the language of “inerrancy” with respect to the Bible more positively. Enns still seeks somehow to uphold the Bible as God’s Word, but there is a certain measure of cognitive dissonance that is increasingly difficult to ignore as Enns dynamites away the vestiges of inerrancy (The preface in the 10th anniversary edition to Inspiration and Incarnation released in the summer of 2015 makes this point clear. See this fairly disturbing review by atheist Stewart Felker who sees the problem exposed by Enns’ more recent shift).

Peter Enns Inspiration and Incarnation (2005 and 2015) is the book the reignited the contemporary debate over inerrancy.

Peter Enns Inspiration and Incarnation (2005 and 2015) is the book, by a former Old Testament professor at the conservative Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, that reignited the contemporary debate over inerrancy. While praised in some quarters, Enns reopened a can of worms, but he has been criticized for not providing a convincing alternative. In an effort to purge Al Mohler’s strict view of inerrancy, has he created more problems?

In contrast with Al Mohler, Peter Enns is quite open to extra-biblical evidence. But his open posture betrays a fault. Having been schooled in the program of historical criticism that he received in his training at Harvard Divinity School, he has found much to admire and accept regarding the supposed “‘assured results’ of modern biblical scholarship,” quoting from Kevin Vanhoozer’s observation (location 2101, Kindle). But how “assured” can we be about those results? Ironically, Peter Enns appears to be rather uncritical in his appreciation of the tradition of “higher criticism,” preferring to be more of a minimalist in accepting the historicity of much of the Old Testament narratives (A prime example: Did Joshua’s triumph at Jericho really happen as literally described in the Bible? The archaeological evidence for it is non-existent, so it must simply be an embellished legend that never really happened. The Bible as we have it as a source of history, where no archaeological evidence intersects, is to be held at a safe distance, etc….) Enns appears confident that historical criticism has effectively neutralized all inerrantist arguments, where such defenses of inerrancy are reducible to rhetorical strategies that simply do not work.

Though insightful and challenging in many ways, this still comes across to me as a bit presumptuous. I mean, do all inerrantist arguments that address concerns raised by historical criticism really fail, having more of a defensive rhetoric behind them than actual substance? I found this claim to be in the extreme. In principle, Enns contends that the contemporary “historical criticism” project being promoted in hundreds and hundreds of university religion curriculums is not itself without criticism. But Enns does not provide any concrete example of where criticism of “historical criticism” is indeed warranted.

It is as though both Mohler and Enns, while they are polar opposites, share one thing in common: a propensity to be overconfident and entrenched, despite their own rhetoric otherwise.

At the same time, Enns successfully shows that sometimes Christians impose a particular view of how we think an inerrant Bible should behave, when in reality, the Bible does not line up exactly with our expectations.  As a result, it is very tempting for the typical evangelical Bible reader to try to somehow “fix” what the Bible is saying in order to make it fit within our view of inerrancy, which corresponds with what I saw Harold Lindsell doing in Battle for the Bible back in the 1970s. Lindsell’s presuppositions led to a logical conclusion: Peter denied Jesus not three, but rather, six times. Possible? Yes. Likely? Most probably not.

We need to accept the Bible for what God has given us, even if it does not always match up with our expectations. For example, if I was in charge of the Bible, it would have been far simpler if God just gave us one Gospel. Instead, we have four distinct Gospels. The fundamental focus for each Gospel is always Jesus. Nonetheless, there are unique differences that are not always easily explained away.

Or, consider another example: The history of the Davidic monarchy differs in detail between the accounts in (1 and 2) Samuel and (1 and 2) Kings versus what is in (1 and 2) Chronicles, an observation that leads to a lot of head scratching. Did God incite David to take a census, or did Satan incite David? If God had consulted me, I would have advised Him to give us just one, undisputed account of the monarchy under King David and his successors. It would make this whole inerrancy thing so much easier to work with.

But this is not my Bible to fashion as I would like it. It is God’s Word and therefore His Bible. So, whatever approach I take to inerrancy, it needs to take into account the various phenomena in Scripture, even when it does not line up with my assumptions of what an inerrant Bible should look like.

To Pete Enns’ credit, he reminds us of some of the very real difficulties found within the Bible, and he encourages us to be honest about it. Papering over Bible “discrepancies” with pat answers, or pretending that such difficulties do not exist, simply will not do. In the rush to try to “fix” the Bible, we might end up missing an opportunity to ponder the mystery of why such “discrepancies” exist in the first place. Nevertheless, I am not prepared to go as far as he has gone in simply dropping inerrancy altogether in his characterization of the Bible. I may fit into Enns’ description of being a “descriptive inerrantist” (location 1855, Kindle), which he finds fairly tolerable. However, there were times in reading Enns’ essay where I felt he was being overly dismissive of a more nuanced approach to inerrancy, to the extent where it came across that Enns was prejudging the motives of his critics who seek to uphold such a view. Mohler could be holding on too much to his “fundamentalist” heritage, but Enns looks to be beholden unswervingly to the “higher critics” at Harvard.

Comparing the two together, Mohler gives us a fairly strict definition of inerrancy, which he affirms. Enns, on the other side, gives us pretty much the same strict definition of inerrancy, which he rejects as being unworkable with the Bible we have. Could it be that a different definition of inerrancy is required that is faithful to the Bible we actually have?

Descent of the Modernists, E. J. Pace, 1922. Many have slid down a slippery slope towards unbelief. But is such a slide inevitable? I think not.

Descent of the Modernists, E. J. Pace, 1922. Many have slid on a slippery slope, or taken the stairway, down towards unbelief. But is such a slide inevitable? Must we build up a hedge to keep us from falling downward? I think not. A more robust doctrine of inerrancy that avoids the extremes is needed to halt such movement.

A Hedge on One Side: An Inevitable Ride Down the Slippery Slope on the Other

Let me talk for a moment about the pastoral issues involved here. After all, we can drill down on the nitty-gritty of what “inerrancy” means and forget that this is all about helping people connect with the Bible in a meaningful and spiritually empowering way.

I get what both Al Mohler and Pete Enns are getting after. Mohler wants to make sure that pastors and ordinary church folk they pastor can have the utmost confidence in their Bibles. It is difficult to preach Christ and share the Gospel when you are not quite sure what to trust in the Bible. To that end, Mohler unreservedly thinks that the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy serves the church in its mission.

Enns wants to help those folks who feel like they are getting “pat answers” to difficult questions from inerrantists, when they are not sounding very convincing. It is difficult to believe something when you have the nagging sensation that you are not getting the full story. For Enns, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy is a type of theological straightjacket that causes more harm than good.

I want someone like an Al Mohler on my team when talking with Christian friends who have a simple faith, who feel torn by the temptations of this world, and who have neither the time nor the academic interest to dive into the latest historical critical research on the Bible, much less try to dissect the various affirmations and denials of the Chicago Statement! For the average guy or gal in the pew, that works just fine for them. They have jobs to do, bills to pay, and kids to raise. They do not need Pete Enns to help deconstruct misconstructed views of the Bible that they do not have.

On the other hand, I want Pete Enns on my team when Christian friends of mine are plagued with doubts. If someone has a question about the Bible, they need to know that there is someone who will listen to their question, and not feel like the conversation will get shut down the moment they voice their doubts. They do not necessarily need Al Mohler to tell them what theological markers are out of bounds.

Nevertheless, despite their nobler aims, the opposite views represented by Mohler and Enns in Five Views hold no quarter for the other, and this is a problem. There has to be some mediating position here.

At the risk of overstatement, with the extremes of having only Mohler’s and Enns’ views on the table, we have what appears to be a set of false dichotomies. If I were to read Mohler in isolation, I would probably be convinced of his view, but I might be tempted to draw lines in the sand to stand my ground in defense of the Bible, on points where such lines need not be drawn. At the same time, to read Enns in isolation might also be convincing in its own way, but it might send one’s faith into a tail spin. Despite my respect for these two thinkers, neither solution seems the right way to go.

Mohler wants to build a hedge to protect the believer from slipping down some slippery slope, while Enns senses that the more you poke at that hedge, the more liable that the slippery slope becomes inevitable, so it is better to help people find a safe place to land after they eventually slide. Al Mohler wants you to pack that hedge as high as possible. Pete Enns wants to give you a pillow, once you fall through that hedge, to soften your landing on the other side.

But I am not convinced that the hedge is absolutely necessary, nor that the slippery slope is inevitable. Thankfully, the advantage of Five Views is that it does not leave you fighting between the conflicting treatments of Mohler and Enns. Instead, it gives you other, moderate voices that attempt to live within the tension between these polar extremes.

Towards A Better Conversation About Inerrancy

With that perspective held in mind, I tend to gravitate towards a more moderate view of inerrancy. A more balanced conversation is needed, and thankfully, Five Views delivers on that conversation. In particular, I was drawn to the essays given by Michael Bird, an Australian New Testament scholar,  and Kevin Vanhoozer, a theologian at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Both Bird and Vanhoozer aim at some middle ground between the extremes  of Mohler and Enns.

Zondervan's Five Views of Biblical Inerrancy, the book mainly under review here. The best introduction to the present conversation, as it is only place I know where the most important and diverse points of view are available in one volume. Highly recommended, but you have to be pretty motivated to tackle the subject.

Zondervan’s Five Views of Biblical Inerrancy, the book mainly under review here. The best introduction to the present conversation, as it is only place I know where the most important and diverse points of view are available in one volume. Highly recommended, but you have to be pretty motivated to tackle the subject.

However, I must add that John Franke, formerly at Biblical Seminary in Pennsylvania, was probably the weakest and least helpful in terms of his contribution. His theory of the plurality of truth was not very convincing. Franke’s definition of inerrancy tended to empty the term of any real meaning. But his essay does demonstrate that the question that Pilate asked, “what is truth?” (John 18:38) stands at the heart of the inerrancy debate. We simply can not begin to have a meaningful conversation about inerrancy until we have a clear definition of “truth”, and conversely, a clear definition of “error.”

Here is my stab at it: If I tell you that it will take you ten minutes to drive to my house, and it took you twelve minutes, have I committed an “error?” It all depends on the degree of precision you are expecting and the context in which you are expecting it. If you were coming over for a casual visit, “ten minutes” would be close enough for me and probably for you. But if I were making a 911 call, I would expect a greater degree of precision in my conversation with the 911 operator, when every second counts.

To complicate matters, would we also need to consider the possibility that our watch could be off. In the days before smartphones, I had a wrist watch that would constantly fall behind several minutes, requiring me to recalibrate it every now and then to get it back on the proper time. Measuring error can be tricky business when our measurement tool requires recalibration.

How do we know if our “truth meter” is properly calibrated when it comes to understanding the Bible? Too often, the debates over inerrancy get all out of proportion because we have not properly calibrated our understanding of “truth” and “error” with respect to the statements made in the Bible. To correctly calibrate with respect to the Word of God , we must respect the literary genre of the text we are reading, understanding it within the original author’s context. As C.S. Lewis so aptly put it, “The first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is — what it was intended to do and how it is meant to be used” (Preface to Paradise Lost, p. 1).

Now, I am all for harmonization of Bible difficulties where it makes sense, particular if it gets us to spend more time diving into God’s Word. But sometimes harmonization is problematic because our interpretive tools are not always properly calibrated for the type of literature in the Bible we are dealing with. If our tools are “off,” then our harmonization efforts to try to fit everything in place will be awkward at best, and not very convincing. To use an analogy from carpentry, it is like trying to jam a piece of wood in place when your measurements are wrong. Instead, take a new measurement of the wood, recutting it if necessary, before you reach again for that hammer.

If we are not sure how to calibrate our “truth meter” when dealing with a Bible difficulty, then standing back to take a longer look at the problem is probably in order. It might just be best sometimes to pass over the harmonization impulse and celebrate the mystery, trusting that God ultimately knows the answer, and stop beating up other believers and seekers who stumble over difficult passages, and forgo the taunting of relentless skeptics.

Some have proposed that we should opt for a limited view of inerrancy as a mediating position. In limited inerrancy, one accepts the Bible as being inerrant in those areas having to deal with Christian faith and practice. But when it comes to lesser matters, such as some details of science and history, we need not hold to inerrancy.  At one time, I would have accepted such a distinction, but I have now come to think that this is wrongheaded.  It is wrongheaded in that it assumes that God intended certain parts of the Bible to be understood as parts of a scientific or historical textbook. But what if the literary genre selected by God to reveal his truth does not pertain to absolute scientific or historical precision? If we properly understand the genre categories used by God in the Bible, it would help us to better calibrate our “truth meters” when reading the Bible, and thereby avoid such unhelpful concessions as limited inerrancy.

At the same time, there are others who would argue for an unlimited inerrancy, whereby the Bible is considered inerrant regarding “all matters upon which it touches” (Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, A Short Statement, 2). At first glance, it appears pious enough. But what is meant by “all matters upon which it touches?” My concern is that this could be used (and has been used) as a form of license, to justify the irresponsible plucking out of a Bible verse here and there, to make it mean something that neither God, nor the original author, had in mind in the first place. It threatens to place the text of the Bible in the absolute control of the Bible reader, and thus reducing the divine Author and making Him into an accomplice to achieve the purposes defined by the contemporary reader. Such a move can be very subtle. Nevertheless, this kind of abuse of biblical inerrancy needs to be resisted. Instead, a robust doctrine of inerrancy must account for what the Bible intends to teach and what it actually affirms, as opposed to focusing on details and isolated Scripture verses that can be easily ripped out of their literary context and divorced from their intended purpose.

Mustard Seeds, Purpose, and Meaning
The parable of the mustard seed as a teaching tool. Do not think you can understand the meaning of a text without understanding the purpose of the literary genre being employed.

The parable of the mustard seed as a teaching tool. We can not properly understand the meaning of a text without understanding the purpose of the literary genre being employed by the writer. Sometimes the genre of a text is made explicit, as with many of Jesus’ parables. At other times, the genre category can only be known implicitly, based on contextual sources of evidence.

A brief example should suffice. In the Gospels, Jesus sometimes used parables as teaching devices to specifically articulate theological truths. So when Jesus used the parable of the mustard seed (Matthew 13:31-32), we must not think that God or the Gospel writers were intending to communicate scientific or historical details. It would have been completely anachronistic and inappropriate for a first century listener to complain that the mustard seed is not really “the smallest of all seeds,” as Jesus said. There are some people today who might point out that the smallest seed is actually the epiphytic orchid, which is about 15 times as small as the mustard seed. “Surely, if Jesus was God, Jesus would have known that, right?

Uh, let us back up and apply the literary genre properly. Jesus’ purpose in using the literary genre of “parable” was not to give a botany lecture to his disciples. Therefore, the meaning of the parable is to show that the Kingdom of God starts off really small before growing into a much, much larger reality. Having an appreciation for the different literary genre employed within the Bible helps us to better interpret the text, instead of getting us sidetracked with unhelpful debates about the details of biblical inerrancy.

With that in mind, I agree with Michael Bird and Kevin Vanhoozer that efforts such as the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy can indeed bear fruit in forming a properly nuanced view of what inerrancy entails. Nevertheless, I agree with  Bird and Vanhoozer that there is room for improvement to the Chicago Statement, particularly in the area of the study of literary genre. Unfortunately, producing such a revision of the Chicago Statement in our day would be quite an undertaking that would be difficult to pull off. So while the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy is indeed a remarkable and, in many ways, a helpful document, in my view, the simplicity offered by the Lausanne Covenant’s statement regarding Scripture is altogether faithful, more succinct, and less prone to confusion and misunderstanding:

We affirm the divine inspiration, truthfulness and authority of both Old and New Testament Scriptures in their entirety as the only written word of God, without error in all that it affirms, and the only infallible rule of faith and practice.

Some fault the Lausanne Covenant as being too ambiguous with respect to “all that it affirms,” when it comes to the teaching of Scripture. But this reveals the whole problem regarding many discussions of inerrancy today. The crisis of inerrancy only glosses over the deeper problem of Biblical interpretation. For example, C.S. Lewis was surely a great defender of Biblical faith. Nevertheless, he probably would have great difficulty agreeing with many popular understandings of inerrancy. On the other hand, the Jehovah’s Witnesses would have no problem agreeing with the inerrancy of the Bible. But I would dare say, that the way C.S. Lewis read and interpreted his Bible is much more reliable and faithful to the truth of Scripture than what the Jehovah’s Witnesses do with their Bible. In other words, holding to a doctrine of inerrancy is no guarantee of orthodoxy. But in saying that, we need not draw an opposite conclusion and dismiss the doctrine of inerrancy as being unimportant and unnecessary.

Properly understood, the church ignores the doctrine of inerrancy at its own peril. It is so easy to rely on the fallible thought of man as opposed to the infallible thought of God as found in His Word, the Bible. This is really more of a moral problem than an intellectual problem. Will we humble ourselves to God’s revelation of Himself in Sacred Writ? Without an obedient heart and submissive attitude towards the Bible, the church is tempted to forget the very radical and challenging message God’s Word presents to us. We must uphold the truthfulness of the Bible, or else the church looses its unique voice, watering down the Gospel that a lost and desperate world needs to hear.

In different ways, Bird and Vanhoozer in Five Views make the same type of arguments I am summarizing here. Bird was very funny (in a good way with such a serious topic) and yet nicely balanced in his essays and replies. Bird is more inclined to think of inerrancy in terms of the “veracity” of Scripture (a nicely covert shout-out for the Veracity blog? Ha-ha!). Vanhoozer was a lot more serious, and though I do not fully understand the “speech-act” theory critique that he offers, I appreciate his call for a “well-versed” biblical inerrancy. “Here! Here!,” I say.

Clarke’s Rule: Keep Inerrancy and Interpretation Questions Separate

As I have argued here before on the Veracity blog, I must go back to the observation made by J. I. Packer in his critique of Harold Lindsell’s Battle for the Bible.  Inerrancy is a revealed truth that we must uphold as believers, but “the questions of inerrancy and interpretation must be kept separate.” At the heart of the dispute among Christians is the temptation to conflate one’s view of inerrancy with a particular interpretation of the Bible.

Ligonier Ministries' God's Inerrant Word (1974) is an older collection of essays meant to defend biblical inerrancy. The essays in the book were uneven, though I found two my J. I. Packer to be the most helpful.

Ligonier Ministries’ God’s Inerrant Word (1974) is an older collection of scholarly essays dedicated to defend biblical inerrancy. The essays in the book were at times uneven, though I found the two by J. I. Packer to be the most helpful. My review at Amazon is available here. The text for the book is now available online. God’s Inerrant Word has some great and invaluable history, but the back-and-forth dialogue found in Five Views of Biblical Inerrancy is more rewarding.

For example, Michael Bird rightly noted that for many Christians, the only responsible interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis that fits with inerrancy is the Young Earth Creationist view. Interestingly, Al Mohler protested to Bird’s observation, saying that while he himself is a Young Earth Creationist, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy still makes room for someone to hold to an Old Earth view of creation and still make a claim for inerrancy.

I am grateful that Al Mohler has this more generous type of view in favor of a Young Earth. But frankly, in my experience, the most vocal proponents of Young Earth Creationism have very little tolerance for such an “agree to disagree” position. I wish we had more “agree to disagree” Young Earth Creationists like Al Mohler who would be willing to speak up (it might serve their position better!!), but I am afraid that Michael Bird is right on this one. Furthermore, the phenomenon is not simply limited to those outspoken Young Earth Creationists that Mohler does not address. You can find  proponents of other issues, such as some premillennialists, King James Bible fans, and Hebrew Roots Movement advocates, just to name a few, who tie their interpretation directly to the inerrancy of the Bible without blinking an eye.

On the other side, Peter Enns’ critique of evangelical approaches to inerrancy can be a bit jarring to the reader. Though Enns can be upsetting, he is right to say that the challenges he highlights, namely “higher” historical criticism, modern science, and even the question of how the New Testament writers use the Old Testament, are not going away anytime soon. Nevertheless, I can not help but to think that the trajectory that Peter Enns has taken over the years away from affirming inerrancy is an over-reactionary move against the type of rigid, not-so-well-versed (borrowing from Vanhoozer) biblicism that both Bird and Vanhoozer criticize in their essays.

When some believers tend to identify the truthfulness of Scripture with the truthfulness of their supposedly “inerrant” interpretation of the Bible, then it really serves to trivialize the importance of the discussion regarding inerrancy. Inerrancy is still an important doctrine to uphold, but let us not confuse it with a particular interpretation of the Bible that will not stand up under scrutiny.

I can easily see why some Christians reject inerrancy. I am empathetic with their doubts and concerns. Sadly still, they are rejecting what I view is a caricature of the nature of Scripture. It is much better to allow for a respectful conversation to take place instead of automatically reaching for the “inerrancy” club to beat up somebody. Until those who are conversant on the subject of inerrancy are able to adequately make the distinction between inerrant Scripture and errant interpretations of Scripture, the debate over inerrancy will only continue to generate more heat than light.

Thankfully, Five Views does not go down that road. Five Views attempts to keep the focus on what is meant by the truthfulness of Scripture as the best way to understand inerrancy, instead of getting side tracked by contentious Bible interpretive questions. Christians can have the confidence that the Bible is indeed trustworthy, even when certain issues of interpretation remain unclear to us. The issues involving biblical inerrancy can be difficult and complex, but the type of conversation that Five Views encourages us to have is the right road to take.

Additional Resources:

That is a lot to take in regarding biblical inerrancy, but I have collected a few resources to assist those who want more depth and clarity on the topic. Read about a variety of solutions discussed regarding Peter’s denials of Christ, in this paper by Edwin K. P. Chong.

For a helpful, succinct summary of Kevin Vanhoozer’s understanding of inerrancy that I resonate well with, from a video he made as part of a panel presentation for the book at an Evangelical Theological Society meeting:

And finally, here is Australian Michael Bird summarizing his position.

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

One response to “Inerrancy and Interpretation: An Extended Review of Five Views of Biblical Inerrancy

  • John Paine

    Clarke,

    Thanks for this outstanding and exhaustive treatment of inerrancy. Christians cannot engage in apologetics unless they understand these issues. You are quite right in pointing out the theological precariousness that too many people create when they link inerrancy to (their own) interpretation.

    Whether we are aware of it or not, we must have a working appreciation of inerrancy. I don’t often use personal testimony, but I have found the exploration of Bible difficulties to be extremely rewarding. I don’t always find a comfortable harmonization, but my faith grows best when it is challenged. It comes down to critical thinking and the objective claims of Christianity.

    Well done!

    John

    Like

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