A popular tactic by many anti-Christian critics is to find an alleged contradiction, wrong fact, or mystery in the Bible, no matter how small it may be, and then announce that all of Christianity is false. This is due, in part, to the doctrine of inerrancy that many conservative Christians hold to, the belief that the Bible is without error in all that it teaches and affirms. Many critics therefore view Christian belief as a house of cards: Find something Christians cannot explain, even in a tiny detail that affects no major doctrine, and the whole thing comes crashing down. It’s actually interesting that many Christians seem to view this somewhat the same way. In fact, many people claim to have lost their faith because their belief in inerrancy was broken (I was made aware of a study by a Biola PhD student about this, but right now I cannot find the link). Also, when some evangelical Christians do not affirm that one needs to hold to inerrancy to be a Christian, they are sometimes attacked as “liberals” who may not even be true Christians. Norman Geisler, for all the good that he has done, has developed a bit of a recent reputation of being bullish on this, while several Christians were unhappy that William Lane Craig stated that finding an error in the Bible is not the same as refuting Christian doctrine.
However, scholars like Craig and Daniel Wallace seem correct here: I do not think belief in inerrancy is a requirement for salvation, and I do not think that refuting inerrancy necessarily entails the collapse of the Christian faith. Now, notice what I did not say: I did not say that Christians should not believe in inerrancy, nor did I say that I do not believe in inerrancy. I do hold to inerrancy, and I think it is healthy for Christians to believe in it. I just do not think that the entire Christian faith rests on it.
What saves and why do Christians believe in inerrancy?
I think the first point, that belief in inerrancy is not required for salvation, is rather simple to defend: Nowhere in the Bible itself does it state that, nor has that been taught in Christian history. Faith in Jesus is what is required, and for sure, with that comes important beliefs that Christians also must believe in such as the crucifixion, the resurrection, the Trinity, and the Incarnation. The gospel message does not contain any formulation of inerrancy as something that must be believed; this is why people were saved, lo and behold, before the New Testament was fully written.
Secondly, it is important to reflect on why Christians believe in inerrancy: It actually comes as a result of faith. When one places faith in Christ, it becomes apparent to him that the Bible is the inspired Word of God and that Jesus treated it that way. And if it is the inspired Word of God, I think the most reasonable conclusion is that it should be trusted in all that it intends to teach and record (for an evidential approach, check out R.C. Sproul’s argument here). It seems rather silly to think that someone would accept inerrancy before he accepted Christ; one can neutralize objections to the Bible and show how it is historically reliable, but completely proving inerrancy is not possible without the ability to check every single fact in the Bible. Considering that some things in the Bible are prophecies about the future, that isn’t exactly something that can be “proven” right now from outside of Scripture. This by no means jeopardizes the rationality of inerrancy, as J.P. Moreland argues, because again, belief in inerrancy does not come from checking every fact of the Bible but by coming to a reasonable conclusion after one places faith in Christ.
Furthermore, while we should have high confidence in the current version of the New Testament, we obviously do not have the original manuscripts, and the doctrine of inerrancy technically applies to them and any perfect copies of them. We do not have a perfect copy of the original text, but what we do have are a wealth of manuscripts from which we can construct the original text with over 99% certainty. This strong evidence alongside faith in God’s providence give us the confidence that the translations we have carry the originals’ trustworthy nature.
These considerations have a few important ramifications. One, it is possible for someone to reject inerrancy and be a Christian, and there have been many Christians who accept the Bible as inspired and authoritative but avoid any inerrancy language, such as the late biblical scholar Bruce Metzger. Two, when we make a case for Christianity to unbelievers, it is not necessary to try to demonstrate inerrancy; all one needs to do for the Gospels, for example, is to show general reliability. Detective Jim Warner Wallace has an interesting testimony on this: As an atheist detective, he actually did not care if there were small discrepancies in the narratives of the Bible because he encountered discrepancies all the time in witness testimony, even from witnesses whom he and jury found to be trustworthy. He only cared whether or not the Gospels proved to be generally reliable witnesses, and after his investigation into their claims, he found them to be so and became a Christian. THEN he accepted inerrancy.
Three, it can help us direct our energy more efficiently when discussing Christianity with nonbelievers. Often, non-Christians will park themselves on some issue, such as whether there is some wrong math in 1 Kings 7 (there isn’t, but that’s beside the point right now), and shout that the Bible has a mistake and therefore Christianity is bunk, with the discussion goes in circles around proving or disproving little details. It can be fruitful to redirect such discussions to the core tenets of the faith: Who is Jesus, what did he say, and what did he do? THAT is what saves.
How we should define inerrancy and why it is important
None of this is to say that inerrancy isn’t important. In fact, it seems like an all too human pattern that if Christians reject inerrancy, they end up sliding into theological liberalism and ethical compromise (though this is certainly not universal). As I said above, the reason that inerrancy is an important doctrine is because it is a reasonable extension of inspiration: If a perfect God inspired the work, the work can be reasonably expected to be without error. Furthermore, given Jesus’ high view and clear reverence of the Old Testament, it would be silly to disagree with our Lord that the OT carries enormous authority that could be aptly described as “inerrant.” Not every Christian follows this train of logic, but I think it to be a good and important one for the health of the church because not only do I think it is logical, I think it limits the temptation to be picky with Bible verses that one does not like. Essentially, an inerrantist view of Scripture gives a steady ground for theological and ethical reflection and protects against self-serving thoughts. Think about any new “innovation” in ethics or doctrine in recent years, and it is almost always accompanied by an explicit or implicit rejection of inerrancy.
It is important to note that not every evangelical’s complete definition of inerrancy is the same; not all inerrantists will agree with every single detail of even the famed Chicago Statement of Inerrancy, especially from those in the dispensationalist camp (though there is still general agreement). Still, all inerrantists share a high view of Scripture and a complete trust in its authority, and one could roughly define the doctrine as this: The original autographs and any perfect copies were completely without error and precise and literal as far as the author intended. Inerrancy simply does not mean that the Bible is supposed to be read literally everywhere or that it is always concerned with numerical or narrative precision.
Inerrancy concerns the Bible, not our interpretations
A common mistake by many people is to blur the lines between the Bible itself and their interpretations. This is why some Christians, when faced with disagreement on a biblical passage, accuse others of denying inerrancy and being heretical, which is frankly a bit arrogant and childish. There are large parts of the Bible that are easy to understand, but even there, if someone denies their plain meaning, that doesn’t necessarily mean they reject inerrancy. They could simply be bad at reading comprehension or have listened to a bad sermon on it (though if they persist in their rejection of obvious teaching even after correction, then we can start being suspicious about their approach to Scripture). If we cannot necessarily conclude that these people reject inerrancy even when they misread obvious biblical passages, it is silly to attack other Christians who disagree on passages that are legitimately difficult. As Alvin Plantinga points out, the fact that Christians hold the Bible to be true in all that it says does not mean that it is always easy to decipher what it is saying in the first place, even taking into account the illumination of the Holy Spirit. This does not mean that the Bible doesn’t have a meaning, only that we, as limited human beings, often struggle to figure it out.
To review, I think avoiding the error of “inerrancy or nothing” helps in these ways:
- It rightly puts salvific emphasis on Christ himself, which is where Scripture itself puts it.
- It encourages an educated and nuanced understanding of inerrancy, something that is rather lacking in the church.
- It emphasizes why inerrancy is important: That it is important for the health of the church and the development of its theology.
- It aids in evangelistic and apologetic encounters so that Christians can steer the discussion to core tenets of the faith rather than get bogged down on details that do not affect central doctrines.
- It encourages humility when dealing with difficult texts and theological topics.
I know this article can only scratch the surface regarding inerrancy (another good read is this article by Dan Wallace), but I hope it makes clear that a nuanced, clear understanding of inerrancy is important for Christians to grasp.