Inerrancy: What it is Not

With much ground to cover, only a brief introduction will do. In our discussions of many theological topics, the via negativa, or the negative way, is often helpful to properly elucidate a particular subject. By specifically asking what a doctrine or concept does not mean, we place fenceposts and guardrails to keep the discussion focused on the right things. A series on the inerrancy of the Scriptures is always appropriate, and the focus of this brief article is to consider inerrancy in the negative, or to specifically ask what it is not or does not mean. I won’t be giving a definition of inerrancy, although in any discussion of the negative, a light always inevitably shines on the positive. There is also another article slated for a discussion on how inerrancy differs from infallibility, so I will leave that to the wayside as well. And so with the introduction complete, let us consider a few things that inerrancy does not mean.

Inspiration. Although it may be easy to simply lump inerrancy within the larger discussion of the inspiration of the Scriptures, it rightly resides outside of inspiration because rightly understood, inerrancy is a result of inspiration, and a necessary one at that. The doctrine of inspiration deals with how the Scriptures came to be - the origin and genesis of the Scriptures, whereas inerrancy deals with a quality of those Scriptures that we now have. They are related, but separate.

Indefectibility. “Indefectibility means abiding or remaining in the truth in spite of errors that touch even doctrine.”[1] Indefectibility has at its root the idea that while the sum total of Scripture is truth and contains truth, it can, when roving into the specifics of places, events, people, and even doctrines, get things wrong. And because this view states that Scripture can indeed err, it must be rejected as outside the bounds of orthodoxy.

Indeceivability. While a step closer to orthodoxy than is the previous idea, this concept of inerrancy still falls short. Used by a number of more orthodox evangelical theologians who still hold the Scriptures as weighty, this view states that the Bible does contain some minor errors in the specific details of certain things.[2] These theologians attempt to maintain orthodoxy by claiming that the Scriptures as God’s Word do not violate the truth of God because, although they contain errors, those errors are not meant to deceive. Error can be redefined as “intentionally misleading” or “lying to” in order to maintain the integrity of God while allowing for certain claimed historical inaccuracies. “It’s not error since God isn’t intentionally deceiving us or lying to us,” or so the sentiment goes. But this is unsatisfactory because it transgresses the perfect knowledge of God and the character and nature of inspiration, as well as redefining error in a way that makes its continued use untenable even as defined in the Scriptures themselves. God isn’t perfectly true simply because He isn’t deceptive but because He is truth itself and can only speak truth.

Always literal and grammatical. A proper understanding of inerrancy must incorporate the fact that Scripture can’t always be read in a wooden, literal way, and it doesn’t always follow every grammatical rule of the language it was composed in. Now I am as insistent on grammatical historical interpretation as they come, but when the Scriptures say that the sun rises in Psalm 19, that cannot be understood as error because God is using the language of the day and speaking to a people who would not have understood a heliocentric view of the solar system. That is to say, Scripture uses accommodated language. It communicates truth in a way that the original hearers or readers would understand while also being free from error, and it can even break those same grammatical rules if necessary.[3]

Comprehensive. Scripture is true, but it doesn’t contain all truth. Both David (Psalm 19) and Paul (Romans 1) tell us that God has shown Himself and His character in ways that are outside the Scriptures. Now we also know that although God does make things clear in nature, the Scriptures are what brings us to a saving knowledge of Christ. Yet the fact that nature tells us things about God is an indication that the Scriptures are not comprehensive in nature, that is, they don’t give us all truth. Moses says in Deuteronomy 29:29 that there are in fact secret things that belong only to God that we cannot know. Every parent inherently knows that there are times when it is neither wise nor loving to tell their children every part of the truth. Wise parents will intentionally withhold information from them to protect them and mature them wisely. God gives us the aspects of the truth that we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1), but it can never be said that He errs in not giving us the entirety of all that is true. Simply put, Scripture is not exhaustive.

Precise. “The word [inerrancy] has come to suggest to many the idea of precision, rather than its lexical meaning of mere truth. Now, precision and truth are not synonyms, though they do overlap in meaning….But outside science and mathematics, truth and precision are often much more distinct.”[4]  Frame goes on to give several examples of how normal human speech can be both truthful and imprecise. In relation to the Scripture, this means that God doesn’t always give every specific detail and all the minutia that is involved. He gives only what is necessary to communicate the truth that He desires. While related to the idea of comprehensiveness, precision relates to the specific and minute details. Frame says, “We should always remember that Scripture is, for the most part, ordinary language rather than technical language.”[5]

Limited. This wrong understanding of inerrancy states that the inerrancy of Scripture is limited in scope, specifically to areas related to Salvation. The claim goes that whereas the Scriptures may have errors in specific historical details, it is completely without error when it describes matters of faith and practice for the believer. Perhaps this is a summary view of much of what has already been discussed, but it is noteworthy. We must maintain that a limited inerrancy is no inerrancy at all. If God would err in even one thing that He says, He would be untrustworthy in anything that He says. And if God is untrustworthy, He is not God at all.

Keith Kauffman attended University of Maryland (B.S.) and Capital Bible Seminary(M.Div.). Keith currently works at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD, working in the Laboratory of Parasitic Diseases studying the immune response to Tuberculosis. Keith serves as an elder at Greenbelt Baptist Church.

 


[1] Feinberg, Paul D., “The Meaning of Inerrancy.” Inerrancy, Ed. Norman Geisler. Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI, 1980. 287.

[2] Ibid, 288.

[3] Ibid, 299.

[4] Frame, John M., The Doctrine of the Word of God. P&R Publishing: Phillipsburg, NJ, 2010. 171.

[5] Ibid, 172. Included in this discussion on precision the concept of the voice of Jesus rather than the words of Jesus. For details on this particular discussion, see Feinberg, p301.

 

Keith Kauffman

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