Rethinking ‘Inerrancy’

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The belief that the Bible is ‘inerrant’ or that Evangelicals must and by and large do adhere to a doctrine of ‘inerrancy’ has been around for a pretty good while now.

Usually, however, the doctrine is approached from ‘below’, from the perspective of the Bible’s putative inability to relate inaccurate historical details. Taken ‘from below’, the doctrine takes a beating.

Perhaps, then, it’s time to consider the doctrine ‘from above’. That is, from the perspective of what the Bible actually is about and it’s ability to rightly inform and guide.

Rethinking the doctrine of Scriptural inerrancy necessitates that we begin to think of the Bible on its own terms and speak of it correctly along the lines of those terms. Doing so allows us, it seems to me, to adopt (!) a doctrine of inerrancy that is both Scriptural and – from the point of view of believers – sustainable and meaningful.

What, then, does it mean to speak of inerrancy from above? Simply put, it means to speak of the Bible as incapable of causing believers to err or stray from the revealed will of God. The Bible reveals the truth about the Divine and the Human. Believers who adhere to that revelation are kept safe from errant behavior or belief and the Scriptures do not err in teaching said proper behavior or belief. Furthermore, those who plant themselves in that revelation are ‘like a tree planted by the waters’ to borrow a phrase from Psalm 1.

Scripture is inerrant, then, because, rightly understood, it cannot and does not cause error in faith or practice.

As an aside or addendum, the little phrase ‘rightly understood’ is absolutely essential. Scripture can be and regularly is distorted by those who can and do wish to twist it to fit their own ends or suit their own needs. Scripture ‘rightly divided’ is inerrant. Scripture distorted or perverted is no longer Scripture, but mere text.

Who then is capable of rightly interpreting Scripture? The person who has 1) the requisite linguistic and hermeneutical skills along with 2) the guiding presence of the Holy Spirit. One without the other results, always, respectively, in error or fanaticism.

As Zwingli rightly put it, on the one hand, ‘without the Spirit one is guided by the flesh or human understanding and is therefore blind’, and on the other, ‘the Spirit doesn’t depart from Scripture, but adheres to it (so that those who speak of ecstatic utterances or secondary revelations are deceivers)’.

This is why the atheist or the unbeliever is, so far as Zwingli and other notable theologians are concerned, incapable of understanding or interpreting Scripture. They can examine texts, to be sure, but they lack the requisite tools (Spirit and training) to interpret it. Like birds in a cage, they can only stare at the text outside their sphere and too far from their grasp to ever be able to touch it.

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7 thoughts on “Rethinking ‘Inerrancy’

    Mhac Jananpin said:
    January 12, 2010 at 03:07

    Take that, John L.!

    Jim responded:
    January 12, 2010 at 03:08

    ;-)

    Esteban Vázquez said:
    January 12, 2010 at 04:39

    This is a little gem of a post, Jim! Thanks for the food for thought.

    [...] those who are following this series and who have not read the comments by John Hobbins (cf. Jim West and Art Boulet) to do so. Much of the discussion of inerrancy is really a matter of semantics, so [...]

    John Hobbins said:
    January 13, 2010 at 21:30

    I had forgotten about Z’s strong statements against the “enthusiasts.” Fine theologian, Z.

    Jason said:
    January 14, 2010 at 05:35

    Excellent post!

    Michael Acidri said:
    November 17, 2010 at 20:01

    Tucked neatly away. Had to dig this post up and i like it. Go, Jim Go!

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