Thursday, June 07, 2007

Status of Inerrancy

I have met some Evangelical Christians who, at the mention of the word "inerrancy" role their eyes and shake their head, and go into a long winded speech about fundamentalism and 161 reasons why they don't like the KJV or George Bush. I have met others who think that inerrancy is the centre of the theological galaxy (who needs Jesus when you have inerrancy) and make inerrancy the sine qua non of authentic faith. Let me say this: (1) If I have to choose between errancy and inerrancy, I'll take inerrancy; (2) Christians through-out the centuries have affirmed that the Bible is free from error in all that it claims, and I stand with them; (3) A case can be made that inerrancy is arguably an implicate of inspiration, so it's a theological doctrine but not necessarily a historical or biblical one (if ya don't like that one, don't blame me, blame Carl Henry); and (4) My preferred expression for a Doctrine of Scripture is the 1689 LBC which states: "The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience" (see 1689 LBC 1.1-10). That aside, I'm interested in exploring the status of inerrancy as an article of faith. The originator of a modern view of inerrancy, B.B. Warfield, and the most capable theologian of inerrancy, Carl Henry, did not regard inerrancy as the necessary criteria of an authentic Christian.

James Orr, professor at Glasgow University, a contributor to the "Fundamentals" argued that what Warfield was proposing in inerrancy was "suicidal" (direct quote). Yet Orr and Warfield remained good friends, contributed to joint publications, and promoted each other's work. Carl F. Henry was good friends with F.F. Bruce (non-inerrantist and egalitarian) and they regarded each other as good evangelical scholars. Here's my questions:
1. Did Warfield and Henry fail to see the gravity of their own views, or did they (I think rightly) put inerrancy in its proper perspective in terms of the weight that they assigned to it as a theological doctrine? Have the heirs of Warfield and Henry exceeded or abandoned what Warfield and Henry saw themselves as doing?

2. To what extent has the "Battle for the Bible" been a product of the Christianity's battle/struggle with Modernity, and have conservatives tried to win the war by using the rationalistic philosophy of the Enlightenment?

3. Do some evangelicals look down on inerrancy as if to somehow make a desperate plea to non-evangelicals to take them seriously? For example: "Yes, I'm an evangelical, but I don't believe in inerrancy, so please come to my SBL paper!" (As I bite my bleeding tongue, Russ Moore might actually be right on this one!)

My thinking on this topic has been influenced largely by my boss, Andy McGowan, see his work: A.T.B. McGowan, ‘The Spiration of Scripture,' Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 21.2 (2003) 199-217 - excellent stuff!


Eric Rowe said...

Not to pick at the details, but Warfield is not the originator of the modern doctrine of inerrancy. Gaussen's book, Theopneustia systematized virtually an identical view several decades before Warfield did. And, as I understand it, Burgon, also preceded Warfield in arguing explicitly that the text of the autographs was free of all error.

Doug Chaplin said...

I know, or think I know, what careful and thoughtful writers mean by "inerrancy", but the problem then is what the vast majority take it to mean.
But worse, even if one grants the concept in the abstract, the only inerrant Bible is an un-opened one. As soon as an erring, fallible, sinful human opens it and reads it, you introduce the possibility of error: "Is what I say it means what it actually does mean or intend." Inerrancy of scripture (abstract doctrine) does not grant inerrant reading of scripture (actual experience). Why then get so excited about a quite impractical word?

Danny Zacharias said...

I confess I am a little confused by your post. You say your preferred expression is "The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience". When I read this statement, which I fully agree with, I think of the word infallible, not inerrant.

This may be a marker of the fact that we are on different sides of the atlantic and fundamentalists in the US really color the way us non-Fundies think — but when I hear inerrancy, I take it to mean that the person believes that every miniscule detail within the pages of the Bible is correct - the mustard seed is the smallest seed (it isn't) the earth is 6,000 years old (it isn't) etc. It seems you are using the term inerrancy to mean it is without error in matters of salvation, faith, and obedience. I would call that infallibility, not inerrancy.

I wonder if our geographical placement has anything to do with this difference? It wouldn't surprise me, as the word evangelical has come to mean different things on different sides of the pond as well.


Eric Rowe said...


Were you using hyperbole when you said, "but when I hear inerrancy, I take it to mean that the person believes that every miniscule detail within the pages of the Bible is correct - the mustard seed is the smallest seed (it isn't) the earth is 6,000 years old (it isn't) etc."

I don't think any of the various books, articles, and statements on inerrancy that one might find would advocate the view you describe, regardless of the authors' geography. (btw, the Bible nowhere says that the mustard seed is the smallest seed. It only accurately quotes Jesus as having said that).

Bob MacDonald said...

Groan - (Romans 8), I should write on this on stenagmois, but I won't. Inerrancy - don't call it abstract. Abstract is good - draw me out of myself to you (Song 1) Abstrahere - to draw out. Inerrancy as an article of belief is idolatrous. The faith of us is in engagement to the one who redraws us in his image. Faith is not a cerebral belief in doctrine - but to a form of teaching - death and resurrection - a pattern, a matter, a sense-making reality. Sure, I learned these things from words on a page, but it is the Spirit who taught me to conform my love to his love by the death of the Son. Call me no more words - call me to engagement with the risen one and then I will search for words to express that love.

CJW said...

Of course inerrancy is a product of its context - this is true not only of all doctrines but the scriptures themselves. A quick look at the 1978 Chicago Statement shows its an attempt to co-opt the Reformers for a particular agenda: in effect it claims that 'a Reformation' doctrine of scripture (shorter statements 1-3) necessarily entails a 'Reformed' doctrine of scripture (4&5). That is, that to subscribe to sola scriptura you must subscribe to inerrancy.

It seems to me that inerrancy never really was about a high view of scripture, but about a high view of a high view of the scripture. Which is why in this context it's right to abandon it as doctrinal McCarythism.

Hans said...


I'll have to check out the McGowan article -- somehow I missed it ...

On inerrancy, I agree with you that the two extremes are not particularly helpful. I also think that, for too many academic theologians these days, it's the cool thing to diss inerrancy. For sure, the tradition needs some critique and correction, but too much huffing and puffing can get a bit tiring. Sometimes I feel like saying: feel free to deep-six the rhetorical hyperbole; "inerrancy" ain't gonna kill your pastor, your grandmother, or your dog (I promise).

For instance, you can make the case that Carl Henry basically gave the right answer for his highly polemical time and context. It was not perfect but sufficient for that day. Let's improve it, by God's grace and guidance, while keeping its high view of God's Word and any legitimate/faithful theological judgments it had.

That's Kevin Vanhoozer's take, and I like it. I also agree with him, in the end, that infallibility is a better "master concept" for all of Scripture, whereas inerrancy, strictly speaking, best applies to Scripture's assertive propositions (but there's more going on in holy writ). I think -- hope! -- that such a summary keeps the spirit of former servants of the Word, and yet updates it in the best tradition of semper reformanda.

Finally, you might want to check out this new article: Iain Provan, ""How Can I Understand, Unless Someone Explains It to Me?" (Acts 8:30-31): Evangelicals and Biblical Hermeneutics," Bulletin for Biblical Research 17.1 (2007): 1-36.

Much grist for the present discussion ...


Chris Tilling said...

I'll pick up your bosses paper today while in the library looking for the Weiss thingy. Thanks for the heads up.

Geoff Hudson said...

I'm sorry, but I cannot read the New Testament and believe that it has not been developed/fabricated/edited/added to/interpolated (you name it) from texts that were originally perfectly natural for a new Jewish prophetic movement in its first flush. But even a later editor realised, "the letter kills".

Michael F. Bird said...

Eric: Thanks for the info on Glaussen, I should tell Andy to see if he knows of it.

Danny: I think it important to differentiate between popular (mis)conceptions of inerrancy, such as those who think that inerrancy means that you have to take the days of Genesis 1 as literal days; and there are those who are more nuanced in their understanding of inerrancy (e.g. Chicago statement). On infallibility, inerrantists say that it is too "soft" and "wishy-washy", and liberals can't see a dime of difference between infallible and inerrant!

Cam West: Whoa! You don't hold back do ya boy?

Hans: Read McGowan's article which will give you a good foretaste of what his forthcoming book will be about later in the year.

Eric Rowe said...

"Eric: Thanks for the info on Glaussen, I should tell Andy to see if he knows of it."

I would be interested in hearing back from him what it was that led him to believe that Warfield invented the doctrine of inerrancy. I'll take a stab in the dark and predict that he got that from Rogers and McKim.

Michael F. Bird said...


1. I don't know if Andy would state that inerrancy goes back to Warfield - that was my inference - not his.
2. Andy is steadfastly against Rogers and McKim!!! What he is trying to do is show that errancy and inerrancy are not the only games playing in town - that's the problem. He is arguing for a "European Alternative to Inerrancy" in the works of Orr, Bavinck, and Kuyper! He's definitely not McKim and Rogers. Let that be clear.

Doug Chaplin said...

Mike, I've developed my views a bit further here. My biggest question about this debate is whether it is really a debate about scripture, or an argument about "who's a proper Christian?" That is, I think it is a heat-generating, rather than a light-shedding debate.

exegete77 said...

Isn't the significance of Warfield (and the late 1800's) that the referent for inerrancy changed? Namely, he (and others) used it to refer to the specific text, "the autographs", whereas throughout church history, the referent was to the extant text(s). Thus, the shift from

1. “inspired, infallible, and without error” (historical phrase for the content of extant texts)


2. “inspired, infallible, and inerrant” (post-Warfield for exact words of autographs)

I think because of this shift, we often get sidetracked with #2 trying to establish the “perfect original text” (autographs), without access to them. In the process, we are forced into a choice that historically had not been a choice.

However, if we accept #1, we take the text(s) as they exist, i.e. in the manuscripts. By doing so, even with the differences in manuscripts we still maintain the “without error” view. On the other hand, differences in manuscripts directly attacks/affects the second view.

Glennsp said...

Yom + evening/morning in Hebrew equals a literal 24 hour day, add in the sequential numbering for overkill.
Has no one noticed that it is only in Genesis that the meaning of Yom plus a number and /or Eve. Morn. etc is questioned?
Surely the question should be "why did God take 6 whole 24 hour days? After all God could have done the whole thing in a second (literal one sixtieth of a minute)"


Jeremy Pierce said...

Until the Fuller/Marsden crowd came along and co-opted the term 'infallible', it used to mean "incapable of error". It was thus the preferred term for a stronger view, one that implies inerrancy but is not saying something as weak as that. After all, a newspaper article can be inerrant. It isn't infallible unless God inspires someone to write it. But now we've got this linguistic confusion thanks to them, since the term is used both for a stronger view than inerrancy by one group (including most of church history) and for a weaker view than inerrancy by this crowd (including most of contemporary theological academia, although philosophy has largely not been infected by this).

Danny Zacharias said...

I wasn't exaggerating, unfortunately. I've read stuff like that. Some even argue that the parables were stories about things that really happened!
Another aspect that inerrancy immediately draws to mind is the phrase "inerrant in the original manuscripts". This is probably the place where I hear the word most often. This statement makes me cringe too, and colors my view of inerrancy, to be sure.

Michael Pahl said...

Mike, I'm coming to this discussion rather late, but it's perhaps worth mentioning a previous incarnation of this discussion among some bibliobloggers, including Chris Tilling and myself. My own thoughts haven't changed drastically since my post, and some of my thoughts there indirectly touch on some of your questions here.

As I put it in my post: "The foundation of our faith and of the Church is Jesus Christ, not Scripture; the ultimate revelation of God is Jesus Christ, not Scripture; the written Word of God (inspired Scripture) is a witness, along with the Spirit and the Church, to the spoken Word of God (the gospel of Jesus Christ) and the living Word of God (Jesus Christ himself), and it is in Him, not Scripture, that all the facets of salvation find their source." If it weren't for my desire to situate myself in some way within modern evangelicalism (and thus to have to engage these sorts of discussions on "inerrancy"), that statement in itself--reworded somewhat, perhaps--would be just about all I'd need on Scripture.

Geoff Hudson said...

If Michael Pahl chooses to bury his head in the sand, that's his right. But his view is, in effect, turning the clock back to the time of the prophets who saw the Spirit of God as the Lord.

Edward T. Babinski said...

Isn't the chain of logic stretched a bit thin overall? From an infallible God to infallible written revelation to infallible interpretations of that revelation, including among others, infallible doctrinal interpretations? At what point might infallibility come into question, or does it never come into question? Surely there's questions at each and every point concerning the type of infallibility involved and its extent.

Edward T. Babinski

The Pook said...

I've read Andy's book and although I wouldn't necessarily agree with everything he says, I think he's right about infallibility. He's no crypto-Barthian or liberal, he affirms everything in the Westminster Confession and holds to the plenary inspiration of Scripture. He has been unfairly pilloried and misrepresented by people who have not read the book or have not understood it.

Trouble is people keep reading chapter four and five out of context of its context in the earlier chapters on van Til's presuppositionalism v. 2oth century modernist evidentialism. We're looking forward to having Andy visit us here in Australia next month.

David Anderson said...

I think this post contains a misstatement about Orr. I've read the original reference, and Orr appears to explicitly deny that Warfield's position was suicidal.

In context, Orr warns that there are *some* configurations of inerrancy that would be suicidal (specifically, the assertion that if you were to make Biblical authority contingent upon the ability to *demonstrate* every Biblical detail, then *this* would be suicidal). However, he it is clear from his wording that he does *not* believe that an inerrantist must do this, and a footnote explicitly shows that he is aware that Warfield himself did not.