Sunday, 21 September 2008

A defense of inerrancy

I heard mention of inerrancy and infallibility of the Scriptures in a sermon recently. The speaker was defending infallibility though he is not an inerrantist. It would appear that these terms seem synonymous so perhaps some definitions are in order.

Infallibility
Incapable of error in expounding doctrine on faith or morals.
Inability to err in teaching revealed truth.
Inerrancy
True in any claim of fact.
Without error, and free from all contradiction.

"Fallibility" in theology is describing reliability, "errancy" is describing error. Inerrancy encompasses infallibility, that is if the Bible is error free then it is also reliable. Inerrantists are infallibilists. However one can claim that the Bible is reliable and useful for faith yet claim it contains errors of fact. Infallibilists may or may not be inerrantists. I claim the latter position is difficult to defend logically and scripturally, but that is not the intent of this post.

During the sermon the position of inerrancy was dismissed in, what I consider, somewhat of a strawman manner. Inerrantists were portrayed as being somewhat simplistic and unthinking. The kind who say, "God said it, I believe it, that settles it." While people of that persuasion undoubtedly exist, this is not the zenith of an inerrancy apologetic and one should should consider the best claims of his opponents, not the poorest.

I am an inerrantist because I think that is the position Scripture points to. The Bible does not appear to discriminate between facts of faith and facts of history. Conversely the Bible claims to be grounded in history. We can believe God about things we cannot know because he is reliable in the things we do know. The early Christians backed up the truth of Christianity by appeal to a fact of history: the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Now we can know much about the spiritual implications of Jesus' death and resurrection based on revelation by God, but this revelation is confirmed in our minds by the very fact that Jesus did indeed die and then rise from the dead! Many people make claims about spiritual truths but many are also unreliable. They cannot back up their claims with events that prove them trustworthy. If they are unreliable in earthly things why should we believe them about spiritual things.

But rather than an extensive defence of inerrancy at this stage, I want to describe what it is inerrantists claim.

Inerrantists believe the Bible to be true in every factual statement it affirms. Inerrantists can agree with the quote, "God said it, I believe it, that settles it," though preferably with qualification.

The last two clauses are relatively straightforward:
  • I believe, or I affirm that what Scripture claims is true;
  • The debate is settled on the side of Scriptural claims because God never errs.
The problem lies in the first clause. While true on the face of it, the debate is around what exactly did God say? The speaker is equating the Bible with God's words: written in the Bible = God said it. But Bible may not say what the speaker is claiming the Bible says. So while the inerrantist believes the Bible is true in everything it affirms, the careful inerrantist wants to know what exactly the Bible does affirm; nothing more, nothing less.

While people may disagree on specific meanings of texts, there are several relevant issues in understanding Scripture. I will address the literalism claim in more depth.

Inerrantists don't hold to a literal reading of every text. While they believe much of the Bible is to be taken literally (while errantists may not do so), probably the best descriptor of their hermeneutic is a "straightforward reading" of the text. So if the text is historical narrative then the claim of inerrantists is that what is written is a faithful history. The events really did happen in the way described. But this does not mean that every verse is to be read as literal. No one reads like this. Even the hyperliteralist sees metaphor in some passages. I am not aware that anyone claims the parables really happened. The literalist would rather defend that Jesus really spoke the parables.

So Scripture is to be interpreted according to genre.

Here are several beliefs that inerrantists can and do hold.
  • Poetry uses symbolism and hyperbole.
  • Proverbs are general truths and there may be specific examples of people who fail to follow the general rule.
  • Fables and allegory illustrate an underlying reality.
  • Analogies carry over an aspect common to 2 situations. They may carry over several aspects but they may carry over only 1 aspect and one should be careful about over reading them.
  • People use approximations when giving information.
  • Not all information about an event may be given.
  • Early revelation is not overturned by later revelation though it may be clarified and/ or expanded upon.
  • Only the original text is necessarily inerrant.
  • Copists made errors. Extant manuscripts may contain error.
  • Translation can introduce error. The original language is inerrant, other languages are inerrant in as much as they faithfully reproduce the original.
  • The text may contain more than one meaning.
  • A strict chronology may not be followed.
  • The Bible may be (deliberately) vague in places.
  • Prophecy is often difficult to understand, especially before the fact.
Here are some examples that an infallibilist may falsely challenge an inerrantist.
  • The earth does not stand on pillars. (Job 9:6)
  • Godly parents have rebellious children. (Proverbs 22:6)
  • Some Bibles include the comma Johanneum. (1 John 5:7-8)
So where would an inerrantist and infallibilist possibly disagree?
  • The numbers of returning exiles listed in Ezra and Nehemiah do not line up.
  • Was the number of demoniacs 1 or 2?
  • Jonah was not really swallowed by a sea creature.
  • The chronology of the Israelite/ Judean kings is incorrect.
  • Noah did not really live to 950.
  • Paul did not write the pastoral epistles.
An infalliblist may claim that there is error in the Bible as evidenced by this list, but because they are not claims of faith we can still learn from the principles in the stories. The inerrantist would argue that the straightforward reading of the Bible claims are indeed true or that the apparent contradictions are resolvable. He would further argue that the lessons taught are dependant on the reality of the situation: God acting in real history.

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