Inerrancy: What it Does and Does Not Mean

Everyone, whether Christian or not, has a doctrine of inerrancy. Everyone believes some things to be true, others false and they base their life on what they believe is true, right and good. No one actually functions believing that they are void of all truth. This can be known from observation of people, or one could read Romans 1:22 that tells us that everyone claims wisdom for their thinking and living. Everyone not only has doctrine—or teaching and beliefs that are expressed in living—but also has a doctrine of inerrancy. Even if someone was to claim that neither they nor anyone can have knowledge of what is true, we could easily point out the absurdity of such a claim. After all, their claim to know that no knowledge of truth is possible is itself a truth claim. Truth claims are in some sense claims of inerrancy, are unavoidable in life and, connected to a person’s conception of what they think is good for everyone.

The Christian claim that the original manuscripts of the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament are without error is, therefore, not a claim that is fundamentally different from what non-Christians claim for their source for knowledge. The question is not who has a doctrine of inerrancy, but of what their doctrine of inerrancy consists.

The Christian doctrine of inerrancy means and does not mean several things within the Christian faith. First, the Christian doctrine of inerrancy rests upon and is defined by who God is as Father, Son and Holy Spirit and what he does. Put another way: The original manuscripts of the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament are without error because God is Truth. God does not err, therefore his written word does not err. Humans can and do err, but God is much greater than any aspect of his creation. God controls his creation. So affirming great things about God, but thinking that somehow humans can prevent God from delivering his unerring truth contradicts God’s revelation of himself in the Old and New Testament.

Some might protest: “This argument is circular.” But the truth is, all reasoning is in some sense circular, because it begins with beliefs that both determine one’s reasoning, and are validated through such reasoning.

Secondly, this doctrine does not mean that any individual Christian, any congregation of the Lord Jesus, or any denominations or branch of the Church has an unerring interpretation of the entire inerrant text. As finite and sinfully fallen creatures we humans individually and collectively must receive knowledge of truth. Through the work of Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit, God the Father reveals truth. He does this according to his plan and purpose that is progressively accomplished in, and applied to, his whole creation, and especially his covenant people. Knowledge of the unerring text of God’s written word is a historically progressive process for the rescuing of individual Christians and the whole Church from sin. Faith in the Lord Jesus that is joined to repentance from sin for salvation expresses true knowledge regarding God’s word and produces more true knowledge of his word.

Thirdly, while the Christian doctrine of inerrancy should give us great security and assurance of salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ, it does not give Christians, or their congregations, license to be smug or lazy about their knowledge claims or how they live. We ought to claim that the Scriptures are inerrant, but claiming such hardly substitutes for a life devoted to studying and obeying them. It is one thing to claim what Scripture is, but what we do with them is something else. Pastors and congregations that claim inerrancy for the Scriptures, but do not govern their worship and congregational life by them are guilty of sinful hypocrisy.

Fourthly, it follows from the above truths that the Christian doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture is only understood rightly when we experience the Scripture’s power for new life in Jesus. We should be careful how we handle this doctrine. The presence of a genuine Christian life can exist with individuals and even entire congregations, while they are still maturing and coming to the knowledge of the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture.

By allowing these truths to guide our understanding and handling of the Christian doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture we will, perhaps, be more faithful servants within our Lord’s church, and help others to a more accurate understanding of this doctrine.   

David P. Smith, M.Div. (Covenant Seminary), Ph.D. (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), is Pastor of Covenant Fellowship A.R.P. Church in Greensboro, North Carolina.  

David Smith