Evangelical Christians believe that God’s Word is infallible and inerrant. These two closely related words are intended to convey an important point, that in Scripture God speaks truthfully -all that Scripture says is truthful concerning the things it speaks about and that it is without contradiction and error. When Evangelicals say this, they are speaking specifically about Scripture as originally revealed. This is important to remember for two reasons. First, we know that people can make mistakes when translating and copying. That’s why we put a lot of careful work into assessing and comparing manuscripts and translations.
Secondly, because it helps us to get to grips with the big point that we are making which is primarily about God and his character. We believe in the God who is faithful and true. He is the God who is perfect and holy meaning that he doesn’t intentionally deceive and nor does he make mistakes. We believe in the God who is sovereign and so he is able to accurately convey his message through fallible human messengers.
You will realise at this point that the belief here is important not just for our understanding of Scripture -the written word but also for our understanding of Christ, the living, incarnate word. How we understand Scripture-a book that is God breathed through people, human and divine affects somewhat how we view Jesus, the one who is fully human and fully divine. The Son’s perfection was not corrupted by him taking on human nature.
The doctrine of infallibility and inerrancy has been heavily contested. Usually, this is by reference to perceived factual errors in claims that the Bible makes concerning science, geography and history. Then secondly by reference to perceived contradictions in the text between different books of the Bible or within them. In my opinion -and that of many who have carefully examined these claims over the years – the claim of errors and contradictions rests on a misunderstanding. Where people have identified errors, we have found with careful examination that these arise out of either
- A gap in knowledge concerning the culture, history and geographical context of the specific Scripture.
- A misunderstanding of what the Biblical author was seeking to communicate and the genre/form of rhetoric employed
However, I’ve recently come across two other arguments which runs along these lines. First, belief in inerrancy results in a dead Scripture and second, that insisting that it must be completely true and without error to communicate God’s truth indicates a lack of faith.
Let’s take each in turn. The first claim seems to be built on the assumption that life and joy is found when we pick up Scripture to find, analyse and explain the errors – that it is the presence of errors and contradictions that make study and interpretation necessary. Yet at a basic level, that is fairly obviously false. Evangelicals who believe in inerrancy still do the hard work of interpretation – it is God’s Word that is inerrant not our interpretations – if they just bothered to ask us, or watch us at work, they would find that we give serious attention to wrestling with the text to better grasp it. I will come to why shortly.
Secondly, does inerrancy equal a lack of faith? Well I guess it depends what you mean by “faith”. You see, I might be tempted to point out that it does require a lot of faith to conclude that the best chance of working out what is true is for fallible me to sit in judgement on a human book reflecting on a weak God who is at best semi-muted. There again, what really matters with faith is not its strength but whether it is in the right place and I would gently suggest that if I’m putting my faith in the ability of me, in conjunction with other 21st Century people to come accurately to the truth about God, his creation, us and the future then I think my faith might be in the wrong place.
You see, what really matters with faith is that we put it in the right place and in the right person. Infallibility and inerrancy therefore are about trust in the God who does not lie and does not make mistakes. It is a trust in the God who doesn’t stay at a distance but draws near. It’s about the consequent faith we have in his ability and willingness to make and to keep his promises.
Which leads me back to the question of whether or not inerrancy kills The Word. The source of its life is not in our intellectual curiosity, not in what we do with it. Rather, its life is there, like our life because God has breathed it -just as he breathed into us. It is alive, meaningful, fresh, beautiful and joyful because the living, beautiful, joyful, all powerful God speaks it. It’s worth grappling with because we expect to meet God when we open the pages of the Bible.
And because it is infallible and inerrant, that’s exactly why we wrestle with it. If we believed it was riddled with errors then we could just dismiss them and ignore them. We could say that the authors were pretty useless. If it was full of errors then we wouldn’t really have any way of guessing where the truth was in it -we would be following an unreliable guide. In fact, we would tend to assume that the true bits were the bits we agreed with and that agreed with us, individually and as a culture.
When I remember that I and my culture are the ones who are not inerrant, then I realise that I can’t just ignore the bits of Scripture I disagree with or struggle with. I let God’s Word disagree with me. I also don’t just write off the tricky bits as “author error” – I want to understand why they are there and what God was and is saying through the human author. So, despite the counter-attacks of liberal hermeneutics, it isn’t inerrancy that seeks to kill Scripture, it is the false hermeneutic of said liberalism. Of course, you can try to kill Scripture or at least to chain it, but God’s Word remains unchained and alive.