According to the online Webster-Merriam dictionary, the word “inerrant” means “free from error” and “Inerrancy” means “exemption from error.” The way the terms are used varies widely among conservative and fundamentalist theologians.
Biblical inerrancy as formulated in the “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy” (1978), is the idea that the Bible “is without error or fault in all its teaching;” or, at least, that “Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact.”
When someone says they believe in an inerrant Bible we must ask what they mean by inerrancy. The term has many meanings, depending upon who is making the statement. Some equate inerrancy with infallibility. Others do not. Some people go beyond the Chicago Statement and believe the original documents have been preserved without error and passed down throughout time. Others would contend the King James version of the Bible contains the only authentic writings that have been preserved.
We do not have copies of the original biblical autographs and the signers of the Chicago Statement admit that inspiration pertains only to those original writings. The Bibles we have today are based upon a careful reconstruction of the original documents so they are as close to the originals as possible. There are thousands of documents that are scraps of biblical verses or complete books of the Bible. Scholars are constantly working to ensure accuracy of materials in the original language sources used to translate our Bibles today and new things are discovered each year through archaeological digs at biblical sites that give more information about how words were used in the ancient world as well as non-biblical writings that parallel the Bible.
If the Bible is without error, what is the extent of that inerrancy? Some would extend inerrancy to all areas of life: religion, chronology, science, history, philosophy, etc. Regardless of what scholars in these other disciplines discover and report, the biblical text (generally the King James text) is inerrant and anything else is discounted as “error.”
For example, despite what physicists and astronomers are saying about a “Big Bang” being the way creation began, the inerrantist would still say that the biblical account in Genesis 1 and 2 is the only true explanation, that God created everything in six 24-hour days and there was no “Big Bang.” Other Christians believe that the Scriptures do not err only in fulfilling their primary purpose of revealing God, His vision, purposes, and good news to humanity.
Textual criticism has shown us many textual differences between various manuscripts of the same scripture passage. These differences are “errors” because which manuscript is correct? They all can’t be correct. Footnotes in most modern biblical translations indicate where there are differences in text. However, textual criticism has also shown that these errors do not change any basic teaching of Scripture.
I do not have space to be more exhaustive. If you combine a literalism as I described in the preceding blog with an inerrantist position that the Bible is not in error in all areas of life, then that is intellectual and spiritual tyranny. It is not a tyranny imposed from the Bible itself or imposed by God, but by humans. It is a view that closes the mind to new discoveries. For example, I have read articles where carbon dating was an acceptable process for validating biblical archaeology. However, carbon dating was not an acceptable process for validating the existence of dinosaurs prior to the creation of humans or that the earth was formed millions of years ago rather than 4000. It is this kind of tyranny that turns many people away from the Bible and Christian faith.
I will say more about this in later blogs, but my own position is the belief that the Bible is trustworthy and accurate in telling us about God, His desire for a people He can call His own, the plan of salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the Christian walk of life.
The understanding I have of the biblical material, Its historical setting, and the kind of literature it is, allows me to accept both the Big Bang and Genesis 1 and 2. The beauty of Genesis is that it allows us a timeless and poetic way of celebrating God’s creation without being tied to any scientific theory. If Genesis 1 and 2 had been written from the perspective of the Newtonian understanding of the universe it would be out of date today. Currently, the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics have supplanted Newton’s views. In the years to come there will be further scientific probing into parallel universes and the attempt to harmonize the differences between quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity that will produce new explanations that could supplant both quantum mechanics and relativity.
But Genesis will live on, showing us the beauty of God’s handiwork. To tie it to a particular scientific theory or law or to try and harmonize Genesis with a scientific theory or law destroys that beauty. I do not believe the Bible is literal, as I have described literal, or inerrant, in the sense that it is without error in every area of life. I prefer the terms “sufficient,” “trustworthy,” and “authoritative” rather than “inerrant.” Oh yes, I know. Someone is going to tell me it is these things because it is inerrant. Sorry, I have heard that before!