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What Is the Inerrancy Debate and How Should We Think about It?

This article is adapted from Seven Things I Wish Christians Knew about the Bible by Michael F. Bird.

When God speaks through human authors, he brings his word to us, and it is a true word. God speaks the truth and he does not lie nor mislead us (see Numbers 23:19!). So we can expect Holy Scripture to be true because God has invested his own faithfulness and truthfulness in it.

But that still leads to questions about exactly how or to what extent Scripture is true. Is Scripture true even when it refers to scientific matters about the creation of the universe? Is it fully accurate on the fine historical details about the Israelites and the chronology of Jesus’s life? Or are its truth claims restricted to theological matters like salvation, ethics, and church governance? Does Scripture contain any errors at all like errors of fact or errors of consistency? Can we say that the Bible is true in matters of faith but potentially in error in matters of science, biology, and history? That is what the inerrancy debates are over, and they can be particularly brutal affairs when played out in conservative Christian contexts.

In the history of American evangelicalism, especially in the last one hundred years, inerrancy has been the defining issue within the evangelical camp and has led to all sorts of debates, denominational breakups, and institutional divisions. Indeed, it is not too much to say that “inerrancy” holds a place, a priority, and a demand for precision in American churches that is simply absent in the rest of the world. Don’t get me wrong, global evangelical churches do believe quite earnestly in the Bible’s inspiration and infallibility, just not with the ardor or aggression that has been raging since the 1970s in American evangelicalism’s “battle for the Bible.”

Evangelical strife over inerrancy

Let me share a story that illustrates the ferocity of American evangelical infighting over inerrancy and how it even led some evangelical conservatives to go cannibal on each other. I have a friend named Dr. Michael Licona, and he is a brilliant Christian apologist who has defended Christianity against critiques from atheists and Muslims. He is a great speaker and writer. He wrote a really good book on the historicity of the resurrection.¹ In that book, he had to deal with one especially tricky passage in Matthew’s Gospel:

At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people. (Matthew 27:51–53)

Now, this text is odd because you have people, ancient Israelite saints, apparently being raised back to life, not just before the general resurrection of the dead at the end of history (see Daniel 12:1–2; John 5:29; 11:24; Acts 23:6, 8; 24:15, 21), but even before Jesus’s own resurrection, which is very strange because Jesus’s resurrection is supposed to be the “firstfruits” of the future resurrection (see 1 Corinthians 15:20–23). Plus, Matthew tells us that these holy people were raised to life when Jesus died but did not come out of their respective tombs until after Jesus’s resurrection, which is a kind of awkward intermission. What is more, if this literally happened, you’d think that maybe a Jewish historian like Josephus or a Roman historian like Tacitus might have mentioned this amazing event of ancient Israelite men and women coming back to life in Jerusalem, even if only temporarily. D. A. Carson appropriately labels this episode as “extraordinarily difficult.”² So what is going on here?

Well, Licona comments that this really is a “strange little text” and he notes how many strange phenomena like earthquakes and cosmic portents were said to accompany the death of great leaders in ancient sources. Licona surmises:

It seems to me that an understanding of the language in Matthew 27:52–53 as “special effects” with eschatological Jewish texts and thought in mind is most plausible. There is further support for this interpretation. If the tombs were opened and the saints being raised upon Jesus’ death was not strange enough, Matthew adds that they did not come out of their tombs until after Jesus’ resurrection. What were they doing between Friday afternoon and early Sunday morning? Were they standing in the now open doorways of their tombs and waiting?

Licona then regards “this difficult text in Mathew as a poetic device added to communicate that the Son of God had died and that the impending judgment awaited Israel.”³ I agree with his interpretation; in fact, in an earlier publication I wrote: “My understanding of this text is that it is not historical and it blends the present and the future together, so that Matthew provides a cameo of the future resurrection at the point of Jesus’ death to underscore its living-giving power.”⁴

Even if you disagree with such a line of interpretation, I hope you appreciate that Licona and I are both trying to come up with a defensible and sensible exegesis of this difficult Matthean text.

However, not everyone was politely disagreeable, and Licona found himself accused of denying the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. The “logic” of his critics was that if you don’t believe in a literal resurrection in Matthew 27:52, then obviously you are at risk of denying that Jesus was literally raised to life in Matthew 28. As a result, Licona was denounced on various websites, had various speaking engagements cancelled, was disinvited from teaching at several colleges, and was treated as if he had written a book called Why I Like to Worship Satan and Torture Cute Puppies.

The place of inerrancy in American evangelicalism

I think Licona’s view is entirely plausible and in accordance with historical Christian orthodoxy, and even if one does not agree with him in this particular instance, there was no excuse to treat him as the mother of all heretics. Rather than offer an impassioned defense of Licona within American evangelicalism, I think the whole tragic episode warrants a few comments about the place of inerrancy within American evangelicalism (with relevance to other countries that have enclaves or satellites of American conservative evangelical culture):

  1. For many American evangelicals, inerrancy is kind of like your passport and residency visa within the evangelical tribe; without it you can expect to get deported.
  2. Although inerrancy can be defined in numerous ways⁵—and I can affirm a nuanced version of inerrancy⁶—inside American conservative evangelicalism one’s bona fide credentials and doctrinal righteousness are determined by having the strictest and most wooden version of inerrancy. There appears to be among some evangelical leaders an ongoing rivalry that “ I’m more inerrantist than thou and I can prove it by the number of people that I denounce.”
  3. Some people preach on the inerrancy of the Scriptures, but what they really mean is the inerrancy of their interpretation of Scripture. In other words, the battle for the Bible is not always about the Bible, it is really about the dominance of specific types of religious culture and the hegemony of key personalities within certain institutions.
  4. On the topic of inerrancy, American evangelicals can be viciously tribal and chillingly cannibal on each other.

I find the whole American evangelical fixation on inerrancy and its bitter infighting so weird because outside of American evangelical subculture, among the global churches, no one treats inerrancy as the number one issue that separates the good guys from the bad guys. In the parts of the evangelical world that I’ve lived in and had contact with, the Bible is cherished, its truth is affirmed, and its authority is preserved by believers from Albania to Zimbabwe. However, in contrast to conservative evangelicals in North America, a cumbersome and strict definition of inerrancy has never been the central and defining feature of global evangelical churches. To be honest, if your church is being hunted by either Communists or the Caliphate, you don’t have the luxury of splitting denominations over hairsplitting definitions of inerrancy. Context provides clarity as to what matters most in faith, worship, ministry, life, and death.

Finding nuance in the inerrancy debate

To be honest, here we must nuance things very carefully or we risk making indefensible claims about Scripture. It is important to stress that God’s revelation in Scripture is accommodated to the worldview and expectations of its original audience in matters of the way the physical world works, the understanding of history, notions of literary genres, and standards of truth telling.

That said, the accommodation is never a giving into sheer error. God does not speak erroneously, nor does he feed us nuts of truth lodged inside shells of falsehood. So, for instance, I think that the Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles is a reliable two-volume account of Jesus and the early church written according to the standards of historical accuracy that the author and readers knew. Luke-Acts, as scholars often refer to these books, is historically true within the bounds of what would have been expected of a purportedly historical narrative with clear theological goals and rhetorical flair to enhance the account. In a world without footnotes, quotation marks, or bibliographies, and which permitted some degree of artistic license in narrating history, we can be sure that Luke is a historian of the first rank.

The challenge with Scripture claims

Christian theologians have normally affirmed that Scripture is inspired, authoritative, and truthful. The Lausanne Covenant (1974) declares a belief shared by evangelicals around the world: “We affirm the divine inspiration, truthfulness and authority of both Old and New Testament Scriptures in their entirety as the only written word of God, without error in all that it affirms, and the only infallible rule of faith and practice.”₇

Similarly, according to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1979), “Scripture, having been given by divine inspiration, is infallible, so that, far from misleading us, it is true and reliable in all the matters it addresses. . . . Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit.”⁹ Such statements by themselves are fine; the challenge is how one applies them to particular problems of history, science, and literature that the Bible occasionally throws up for us. Thus, while you can find fulsome statements of faith that regard Scripture as “infallible” (cannot err) or “inerrant” (does not err), and this is all well and good, nonetheless, these statements and their claims about Scripture can be problematic if they do not sufficiently help you convincingly address questions raised by reading Scripture.

These questions can include things like “Why is the Pentateuch attributed to Moses when it shows signs of being compiled long after Moses?” Or “How do we match modern understandings of the universe’s origins with Genesis 1?” Or “Is the book of Jonah actual history or a type of extended parable?”

My point is that if your doctrine of inerrancy means you cannot explain why the evangelists do not agree on the details of Jesus’s entrance into Jericho, then your inerrancy model will not last the winter of its own peculiarities or survive the summer of simple queries. Did Jesus heal one blind man on the way out of Jericho (Mark 10:46) or on the way into Jericho (Luke 18:35), or was it two blind men (Matthew 20:29–30)? 

Can you address these issues without fanciful suggestions like Jesus healed one blind man on the way into Jericho and two blind men on the way out of Jericho? Or can we accept that the evangelists felt free to amend the details in the storytelling? By seeking to define the precise way in which Scripture is true, or not untrue, you risk defining it so narrowly that the first time you find something in Scripture that does not seem to fit, you end up having to choose between a true Bible and a falsified Bible.

Inerrancy should not be posed as an alternative to unbelief. As if one is asked: Do you believe in either (a) biblical inerrancy with Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, six literal twenty-four-hour days of creation, the historical existence of Jonah and Job, that all the psalms were written by David, the four Gospels were written independently, Paul wrote Hebrews, and the book of Revelation should be interpreted in a strictly literal fashion; or (b) a bunch of atheist, Marxist, liberal, secularized, Christ-hating, sacrilegious blasphemy of God’s holy word? Trust me, there is an option (c), which I’m trying to lay out for you. Be that as it may, well intentioned as some are in trying to fortify their own doctrine of Scripture with naked assertions of its truthfulness and how it is true, they can inadvertently shatter other people’s confidence in the Bible and even shipwreck their faith.

What makes the Bible a true book?

What is the basis for belief in the Bible as inspired, infallible, and inerrant? Well, “the Bible itself says so” is one such argument, but that is a remarkably circular way of putting it and it will not satisfy a lot of people. Alternatively, one could try to prove the historicity of the Bible from the age of the patriarchs through to the ministry of the apostles, but that itself is not a surefire strategy, and it can raise more questions than it solves.

For my money, ultimately, if Scripture is God’s own word, then its truthfulness is safeguarded, not by our efforts to harmonize any apparent inconsistency or even in our sophisticated arguments to prove the absence of error. Rather, scriptural truthfulness is simply the outworking of God’s faithfulness.⁹ That is to say, the truthfulness of Scripture is grounded in the faithfulness of God to his own word. Unsurprisingly, this is precisely what we find repeated in Psalm 119 and Revelation 21–22: God’s word is truthful because it reflects the truthfulness of God himself.

What makes Scripture compelling to us is the Holy Spirit’s testimony. As the Westminster Confession says, “Our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.”¹⁰ That derives from Jesus’s own words that the Holy Spirit “will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13). Scripture is authenticated through the witness of the Spirit of God that tells us that God’s word can be trusted. The Bible is God’s word not because we have “evidence that demands a verdict,” nor because of any church council that said so, but on account of the witness of the Holy Spirit to our spirit that we are reading the true words of a truthful God in Holy Scripture. All other evidence, from apologetics or historical theology, is secondary to the work of the Holy Spirit in authoring and authenticating Scripture.

This article is adapted from Seven Things I Wish Christians Knew about the Bible by Michael F. Bird.

  1. Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011).
  2. D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew and Mark, ed. T. Longman and D. E. Garland, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 650.
  3. Licona, Resurrection of Jesus, 548, 552–53.
  4. Michael F. Bird and James G. Crossley, How Did Christianity Begin?: A Believer and Non-Believer Examine the Evidence (London: SPCK, 2008), 69n.60.
  5. See David S. Dockery, The Doctrine of the Bible (Nashville: Convention, 1991), 86–88; James Merrick and Stephen M. Garrett, eds., Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013).
  6. See Michael F. Bird, “Inerrancy Is Not Necessary for Evangelicalism outside the USA,” in Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, ed. James Merrick and Stephen M. Garrett (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 145–73; idem, Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 642–46.
  7. Lausanne Covenant, §2.
  8. CSBI, §11–12.
  9. Carl Trueman and Paul Helm, eds., The Trustworthiness of God: Perspectives on the Nature of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002).
  10. WCF §1.5.
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