EDITOR'S NOTE: One of our primary goals at BioLogos is to host gracious and thoughtful conversation about contentious issues facing the Church. One of these issues is biblical authority. What does it mean that the Bible is the inspired Word of God? How should that belief be articulated and defended? This article is a part of a BioLogos conversation on this topic. Readers are encouraged to listen to all the voices in this conversation, and also to check out our Common Question article.
Inerrancy is not the issue that separates the sheep from the goats; inerrantists are not necessarily “truthier than thou.” The doctrine of inerrancy is not a blunt instrument with which to bludgeon people who are unable in good conscience to subscribe to the notion. Nor is inerrancy a means of eliminating all biblical difficulties or of ensuring particular biblical interpretations or of proving the Bible to be true. Nor should we use inerrancy to determine in advance what kind of truths we will find in Scripture or to stipulate that what matters most in the Bible is the information it conveys. Inerrancy is neither a hermeneutical shortcut nor a substitute for good exegesis. What, then, is inerrancy good for?
God’s Word will accomplish the purpose for which it has been sent (Isa. 55:11). It follows that the Bible is authoritative over any domain God addresses. Inerrancy points out how the efficacy of God’s Word works out with regard to assertions in light of divine omiscience [sp]. To anticipate: inerrancy means that God’s authoritative Word is wholly true and trustworthy in everything it claims about what was, what is, and what will be. While inerrancy is not a full-orbed hermeneutic, it does give believers confidence that Scripture’s teaching is ultimately unified and coherent. God does not contradict himself, despite surface textual appearances to the contrary (Isa. 45:19). If exegesis without presuppositions is not possible, then inerrancy is one of the right presuppositions, enabling us to name what some see as errors for what they are: not errors but difficulties.
What the evangelical world needs now is an account of “well-versed” inerrancy.
Accounts of inerrancy are well-versed, first, when they understand “the way the words go.” Well-versed inerrancy acknowledges that biblical truth involves form as well as content. Well-versed inerrancy thus takes account of the importance of rhetoric as well as logic for “rightly handling [orthotomeo] the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15 ESV). To be well-versed is to have a literate understanding of the literal sense. The early Christians had “an addiction to literacy.” My primary concern about inerrancy today is that too many contemporary readers lack the literacy needed for understanding the way the words go, or for rightly handling the word of truth. Biblical inerrancy in the context of biblical illiteracy makes for a dangerous proposition.
Second, and more important, a well-versed doctrine of inerrancy gives priority to the Bible’s own teaching about God, language, and truth. “Well-versed” thus stands in for “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27 ESV)—the overarching story line of the Bible that features the economic Trinity (that is, the words and acts of God in history). My primary intent is not to react to immediate challenges (many others are doing this, often quite effectively) but rather to probe further into the deep theological roots of the idea of inerrancy, which involves the truthfulness of God and God’s relationship to Scripture—the economy of truth and triune rhetoric.
Inerrancy is not a speculative postulate but an inference from God’s self-communication in word and deed. It is always a temptation to assume that we know what God is like simply by unpacking the concept of “infinitely perfect being.” Elsewhere I have cautioned against “perfect being” theology, not least because God’s revelation in Christ has confounded the wisdom of this world. We must make every effort to avoid identifying God with our ideas of Perfect Being, and inerrancy with our ideas of what a Perfect Book must be. I want to distinguish, following Luther, an “inerrancy of glory” (that is, a natural theology of inerrancy derived from our culturally conditioned concept of perfection) from an “inerrancy of the cross” (that is, a revealed theology of inerrancy derived from the canonically conditioned concept of perfection). A well-versed doctrine of inerrancy that takes its bearings from Scripture understands truth not merely in terms of the philosopher’s idea of correspondence but, biblically first and theologically foremost, in terms of covenantal faithfulness and testimonial endurance. God’s truth endures and hence proves itself over time, but not without opposition from critics or suffering on the part of its witnesses.
Scripture’s truth does not depend on interpreters acknowledging it as such. The reality of God, the world, and ourselves is what it is independently of our thoughts and words about it. Nevertheless, only readers born from above, by the Holy Spirit, can be “well-versed” in the dual sense in which I am using the term: grammatical-rhetorical and biblical-theological. A well-versed approach to inerrancy is Augustinian (“faith seeking understanding”) and sapiential in orientation, for it sees truth not simply as information to be processed but as life-giving wisdom: “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).