Inerrancy: Two Questions
The battle over inerrancy can get quite messy and convoluted. It can become an exercise in losing the forest for the trees as varying sides’ debate the minutia of issues. More than one scholar has complained that the problem with the doctrine of inerrancy is that definitions become so qualified that the definition of the doctrine is too complex. It seems ironic to me that the same scholars never level the same complaints against the Christology found in the orthodox creeds, which is also precise with specific qualification.
While we acknowledge careful articulations are necessary, let us get to the heart of the issue. When it comes to inerrancy, there are two basic questions that we should ask that should frame the debate. Is the Bible the Word of God? Is it possible for God to lie?
First, is the Bible the Word of God? God has revealed Himself in the Scriptures so that we might know Him. He is the living God who has spoken. While not every passage of Scripture was dictated to the human author, the Bible tells us that every word in the original manuscripts of Scripture was ‘breathed out’ by God. “All Scripture is breathed out by God” and the word in 2 Timothy 3:16 is theopneustos. Just as when you and I speak breath comes out of our mouth, the words written in the Scriptures are the voice of God written down. While using human authors, the ultimate responsibility for every word is God’s. The ultimate voice behind what is put down is God not man. The human authors were fully used and engaged in the process so that aspects of their character or situation come forth but they did not add their wisdom nor do the words bear the weight of their authority. The use of human authors did not dilute the voice and authority of God.
Scripture tells us that the writers of the Word of God were carried along by the Spirit of God. 2 Peter 1:20-21 states, “knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” We are not following cleverly devised stories or myths (2 Peter 1:16). The Bible is not fairy tales or embellishments with good morals or identifiable experiences to create inspiring feelings in us.
The Scriptures did not come as the interpretations of a human being. The ultimate will and motive behind what was written was not man’s will but God’s will. This means that God did not merely give the human a general idea or the concept of a doctrine and then man put it into his own words. Neither should we think that Scripture is merely the record of encounters or people’s perceptions of God. Both of these views undermine the force that God breathed out the words.
Certainly God reveals Himself at the events recorded in Scripture (e.g. consider His appearance at Mt. Sinai) but when the human author writes the record of the event the words he writes down are themselves a revelation because he was being moved and carried along by the Holy Spirit. God uses the human author to produce a product that God himself has breathed out. To hear the written word is to hear God’s voice. Every word down to each jot and tittle comes from God and His will. It bears the authority of His voice.
Second, the next question we must ask is: is it possible for God to lie? The Scriptures being revealed from God through a human author is in some ways analogous to the message from a king coming through an ambassador. An ambassador comes from a king and brings only what he is authorized to say. The ambassador may have thoughts and opinions of his own but he is not authorized to incorporate those into his message.
It is quite popular in our day to argue: (a) the authors of Scripture were human; and (b) humans are fallible; therefore (c) Scripture contains errors in its humanness. In principle, the person who holds to inerrancy agrees with statement (a) and (b). But conclusion (c) is not logically necessary and more importantly such a conclusion does not align with Scripture’s own testimony to itself. Scripture testifies it is speech from God.
It is basic to biblical doctrine that God cannot lie. In fact, at stake in this is not, as some might claim, obtuse twentieth century modernist notions of truth, objectivity, and inspiration. Rather the whole of God’s covenant program of redemption hangs upon the concept that God cannot lie. God does not break His promises. His speech is never found to be false or embellished. At stake is God’s own covenant faithfulness.
Here we apply Hebrews 6:13-18 to our doctrine of Scripture. When you and I make a promise or oath, we might swear by a higher authority. We are saying, I am ultimately accountable to this higher authority if I break my word. They will judge me. God, however, has no higher authority. So He swears an oath by His own name when He makes covenant promises. If God can lie, if His words can contain falsehood, then He has violated His own character. If God spoke a lie the universe would fly apart at the seams (Jer. 33:19-21, 25-26) and God would not be God.
If, as He breaths out the words through a human author, they can now be watered down and diluted so that human error and fallibility seeps through, then his oaths and promises are not certain. It would be like hearing from an ambassador coming from a foreign land but being unable to be certain if, when, and to what extent he were representing his nation. There would be no faithful representation and therefore no real picture of the true king or his message. Even more, since God says the Words bear his authority, if the final product is corrupted by human fallibility then God is party to lies, errors, untruths and misrepresentations. God himself tells us He takes full responsibility for every word in Scripture—so is God trustworthy? The very reliability and covenant faithfulness of God is at stake if He cannot ensure that His Word gets to me uncorrupted.
There are, of course, qualifications that we can offer. We can point out that Scripture can use rounded numbers, figures of speech, parables that did not happen, and record the lies of others. We can discuss the issues of textual criticism and carefully qualify the inspiration is to the original documents. But none of these are causes to give up on the doctrine of inerrancy. Name one other major doctrine we throw out just because full articulation involves careful balancing and qualification. The basic issue at the heart of inerrancy still remains: (1) is the Bible the Word of God? (2) Is it possible for God to lie?
Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, currently serving as pastor of Faith Bible Fellowship Church in York, Pa. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.