The Meaning of Bible Inerrancy A Concise Definition of the Doctrine
We hear lots of arguments on whether or not the Bible is “inerrant”, but how often do we think about what is meant by declaring the Bible inerrant. A proper definition of the term may not solve all our disputes, but it will certainly reduce their number, and give us a better understanding of exactly what we’re arguing for or against.
If we ask a person the meaning of Biblical inerrancy, the most common response will be that the Bible is “without error”. This begs the questions “what constitutes an error?” and what about all the false statements contained in the Bible?” (Please hold the stones – we’ll explain this below). So, we see that formulating a simple compact definition of Biblical inerrancy is not as straightforward as it might at first appear. Almost any definition will still require some qualifications. Therefore, in this article, we’ll attempt to develop a clear concise meaning and understanding of this important doctrine.
Written Dec 2008.
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Developing our Definition
In formulating our definition, we can start with the American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, which defines the word inerrant as “incapable of erring; infallible”, or as “containing no errors”. The first portion is technically correct, but inadequate in describing Biblical Inerrancy since it doesn’t adequately elaborate on the term “erring”. We should also note that some apologists maintain minor technical differences between the terms “infallible” and “inerrant”, while others see them as virtually synonymous. We believe the term “infallible” speaks to being incapable of error while the term “inerrant” refers to the state of inerrancy. Anything that is infallible must necessarily be inerrant, but it's possible that the reverse might not be true. Since both cases are true regarding the Word of God, we'll typically use the terms interchangeably fro this article.
The second portion of the dictionary's definition, “containing no errors” also requires further clarification. Any scholar will readily admit that the Bible contains many false statements, but this does not make it inerrant (no I've never given legal council to Bill and Hillary Clinton – I’m not even a lawyer). The doctrine of inerrancy does not maintain that the Bible contains no false or inaccurate statements, but that the Bible does not affirm any false or inaccurate statements. For example, the first falsehood in the Bible is contained in Genesis, when Satan says to Eve, “Surely, you will not die” (Gen 3:4). This passage carries only descriptive and historical authority rather than normative authority (establishing a principle or standard). That is, the Bible affirms only that it contains an accurate description of the statement that was made, but does not affirm that the statement itself is accurate or true, nor does it pass judgment on the statement (probably because it is obvious to the reader that the statement clearly conflicts with what God previously told the first couple). We then see many false statements made by the fallible human characters throughout the Bible such as Job’s friends, the teacher in Ecclesiastes, various false prophets, and many others. Many were rebuked, such as Peter (Mt 16:23), but no false statement is ever affirmed as being true. The fallible opinions of the human authors (distinguished from the authoritive Word) and quotes from uninspired sources also fall under this category.
So, at this point, we can amend our definition to say that the inerrant Scriptures “contain no falsehoods that are affirmed as truth”, or that they are “incapable of affirming an error or falsehood as truth”. By adding another facet to the doctrine of inerrancy, the aspect that the doctrine applies only to the original authographa, we can quote a definition from Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, in which he writes “The inerrancy of Scripture means that Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact.” This is one of the best and most concise statements that I’ve heard, but it begs the question of what constitutes a “fact” as opposed to an “error”. Theologian Paul Feinberg defines inerrancy as “when all facts are known, the Scriptures in their original autographs and properly interpreted will be shown to be wholly true in everything that they affirm, whether that has to do with doctrine or morality or with social, physical, or life sciences”. This excellent description adds some additional criteria, but we need to further identify what we mean by “wholly true”, so even this more comprehensive definition requires some qualifications. We’ll discuss these in the following section.
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In the above definitions, we’ve already encountered what could be considered qualifications, such as inerrancy being limited to the original autographs and to proper interpretations. In reality, we could argue that proper interpretation is not required for a Scripture to be inerrant. In the case where a Biblical passage is misinterpreted, only the faulty interpretation would be in error while the Scripture itself would remain inerrant. For practical purposes however, we must properly interpret the Scripture in order for us to accurately evaluate it. Therefore, many apologists link inerrancy with hermeneutics, the science (or rules) of proper Biblical interpretation. Now let’s examine a few more qualifications to the doctrine.
The doctrine of inerrancy does not prohibit the use of ordinary language. The doctrine allows for the use of slang, figures of speech such as hyperbole, various genres, figurative language, observational description of nature, and spelling or grammatical irregularities (truth is judged by the accuracy of the divinely inspired author’s intent). The authors are allowed the same normal usage of the language for their time and culture, just as we do today. Perhaps the best known example is when we say “The sun will set this evening then rise again tomorrow morning”. Astronomically speaking, this is an erroneous statement since we know the movement actually comes from the Earth’s rotation, but is not considered an error in the normal use of our geocentric language.
The doctrine of inerrancy does not necessitate the degree of technical precision that we sometimes require in our modern language. This applies to several different classes of statements, including numbers, scientific language and quotations. During Bible times, it was common to round off numbers (quantities, distances, elements of time etc) depending on the situation and author’s intent. For example, when we read of Jesus feeding 5000 people, the actual number might have been 5029. Likewise, when Abraham was promised his descendants to be numbered like the grains of sands on a sea shore, the exact number might not match the exact number of grains on a particular shore. Neither statement would be considered inerrant. Looking at the author’s intent, the first case is approximated, and the second case means “too many to count”. Even today, the required precision of numbers varies by the situation. Suppose a person earned $51,647 a year and they were asked the amount of their annual salary. Would it be inaccurate for this person to respond that it was $50,000? This would be perfectly acceptable if the person was responding to a survey, but quite unacceptable during an IRS audit.
The Bible is not primarily a book of history or science, but when it speaks historically or scientifically, it does so inerrantly. This does not require precise technical language, but can do so with the normal use of ordinary language. We’ve already given the example of the sun rising and setting. In another common case, critics use the Biblical statement about “the four corners (or ends) of the earth” to accuse the author of asserting that the Earth is flat, but the author simply means “to all the earth”. In addition, the Bible alludes to the earth being round in Isaiah 40:22 (Hebrew word translated circle can also mean sphere), Job 26:7 (Earth suspended in space in comparison with the sun and moon), and in Luke 17:31-24 (Jesus alludes to the Earth’s rotation). Incidentally, most people in ancient times realized the world was round. They could observe such evidence as a ship slowly disappearing beyond the ocean's horizon, and the shadow cast by the earth on the moon during an eclipse. The myth of belief in a flat earth was invented by those attempting to promote the non-existent contradictions between the Bible and true science.
New Testament (NT) writers often quoted the Old Testament (OT) prophets by re-stating the prophets’ thoughts and intentions in the NT author’s own words. The NT authors did the same with many quotes from the teachings of Jesus. While this practice often produces lawsuits in our modern culture, it was the accepted norm in Biblical times (It was also considered a complement rather than copyright infringement to quote another person). In NT culture, primary importance was placed on the content, thought and intent of the speaker or author, not on his exact words (the Greek language of the Septuagint and the NT had no quotation marks, and translation from Hebrew was involved). We must also remember that the NT authors quoted their sources under the divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit, an important contrast with critics and scholars today. So, as long as the integrity of the original content is maintained, the quotation remains inerrant.
The doctrine of inerrancy does not guarantee an exhaustive comprehensive account of an event. While God has revealed all we need to know, he doesn’t always reveal all we’d like to know. Similarly, the doctrine also takes into consideration that God’s revelation is progressive throughout Scripture. For example, the “mystery” of salvation was foreshadowed in the temple worship and sacrifices in the OT, then fully revealed in the NT. This does not mean that revelation was incomplete or inaccurate in the OT. It was organic in that it contained all the OT writers needed to know at the time, even if they did not always understand the full implications of their own words.
Since critics tend to declare an inaccuracy over the least little detail, we should mention that arranging material topically is perfectly acceptable in the Scriptures (there have been critics cry “error” because some events were not presented in chronological order). One again, this goes back to the author’s intent.
We’ve mentioned or alluded to “author intent” several times, so some may be wondering to whom we're referring as the “author” of the Scriptures. The Bible is unique in that it is both a human and divine book. The original manuscripts didn’t descend from heaven on angel’s wings, but were written by human beings. Yet, at the same time, the scriptures were also God-breathed (Gk theopneustos – 2Tim 3:16). The human authors were guarded against error under the inspiration of God the Holy Spirit (2Pe 1:20-21). Thus, while the personalities and writing styles of the various human authors are present; ultimately, “author intent” is based on exactly what God intended to convey, down to the last jot and tittle (Mt :18)
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Considering all the above, let’s make one more attempt at a compact description of the doctrine. We can now define the doctrine of inerrancy as:
The Scriptures in their original autographs are wholly true and accurate in every respect, to the degree of precision intended by the author, about all they affirm, whether relating to doctrine, ethics, morality, society, history or science.
In conclusion, if we keep this definition in mind, along with the other points we attempted to make, most perceived Biblical “errors” will disappear, and we’ll be better equipped to approach other Scriptural difficulties in a more informed manner.
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Related Documents and Articles
For more information on inerrancy, such as Biblical claims, history of the doctrine, and various issues and objections, see our Overview of Bible Apologetics.
There has not been an “official” doctrine of inerrancy sanctioned by a Church council. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy 1978 is the most widely accepted document on biblical inerrancy in the evangelical world today.
For additional information and commentary, see the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics of 1982, which was produced by the same council in part to clarify some of the language of the original 1978 statement.
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