Is Evolutionary Creation Compatible with Biblical Inerrancy?

Is it possible to accept both biblical inerrancy and an evolutionary understanding of God’s creation?

Biblical Inerrancy and Creation

Is it possible to accept both biblical inerrancy and an evolutionary understanding of God’s creation?

Christians believe that the Bible is inspired by God and authoritative for our lives. But is the Bible inerrant (i.e., without error)? Is it possible to accept both biblical inerrancy and an evolutionary understanding of God’s creation? While not all Evolutionary Creationists embrace the term biblical inerrancy, there are many who do, and many more still who are committed to the idea behind it—that Scripture is trustworthy in all that it teaches. Here we explore how biblical inerrancy and other views on the authority of Scripture can be compatible with Evolutionary Creation.

The Bible is inspired and authoritative

Christians believe that the Bible, composed of the Old and New Testaments, is authoritative. It undergirds and rules our faith and life. The Gospel of Jesus Christ as revealed in Scripture has the power to save for all who believe. Though the Bible is an ancient collection of writings, it is as relevant and authoritative today as it was to believers thousands of years ago. The Holy Spirit continues to illuminate the meaning of Scripture, making it “living and active” (Heb 4:12).

Christians take such a strong view of the Bible’s authority because we believe by faith that the collection of writings included in the Bible were inspired by God. That is, the Bible is the written Word through which God chose to reveal himself to us. Throughout the Bible, we find affirmations of the authority and inspiration of these sacred writings. The Apostle Paul wrote, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16, NRSV). The Apostle Peter wrote, “First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Pet 1:20-21, NRSV). Jesus affirmed that the law and prophets pointed to himself (Luke 24:27).

Even though we see God as the ultimate author, we recognize that the Bible did not drop straight from heaven, fully formed. God chose human authors through whom to communicate. They were not automatons who merely copied down what God dictated to them; they were real people, living in cultures and using local languages and concepts. Just as Jesus—the Logos, or Word of God—is both fully God and fully human, the Bible is inspired by God and written by people.

All of the above is consistent with Evolutionary Creation and wholeheartedly affirmed by BioLogos. Within our community, however, there is a range of views on what terms and concepts best express our commitment to the authority and truthfulness of Scripture.

The term “inerrancy” affirms the trustworthiness of Scripture

One influential and historically important position on biblical authority is called inerrancy. Throughout the ages, many strands of the Christian tradition have found this to be an important description of the nature of Scripture and an affirmation of its ultimate trustworthiness. St. Augustine used the concept in the fifth century, and both Luther and Calvin argued that Scripture is free from errors. The Catholic Catechism states,

Since therefore all that the inspired authors or sacred writers affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.1

In reaction to challenges to the idea during the Enlightenment, Princeton theologians A.A. Hodge and B.B. Warfield defined and defended inerrancy in their 1881 book Inspiration. They rejected a dictation view of inspiration, affirmed the limitations of human authors of Scripture, and distinguished between truthfulness and exactness:

There is a vast difference between exactness of statement, which includes an exhaustive rendering of details, an absolute literalness, which the Scriptures never profess, and accuracy, on the other hand, which secures a correct statement of facts or principles intended to be affirmed…It is this accuracy, and this alone, as distinct from exactness, which the church doctrine maintains of every affirmation in the original text of Scripture without exception.2

Some Evolutionary Creationists affirm The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, while others do not

What the term “inerrancy” means and entails continues to be refined by various groups and individuals. In 1978, more than 200 Evangelical leaders met over three days in Chicago and formulated The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. The statement includes a summary statement, a series of articles—pairs of affirmation and denial statements—and an exposition. Among the many helpful passages are the following:

We affirm that inspiration was the work in which God by His Spirit, through human writers, gave us His Word. The origin of Scripture is divine. The mode of divine inspiration remains largely a mystery to us. We deny that inspiration can be reduced to human insight, or to heightened states of consciousness of any kind.3

We affirm that God in His Work of inspiration utilized the distinctive personalities and literary styles of the writers whom He had chosen and prepared. We deny that God, in causing these writers to use the very words that He chose, overrode their personalities.4

…[H]istory must be treated as history, poetry as poetry, hyperbole and metaphor as hyperbole and metaphor, generalization and approximation as what they are, and so forth. Differences between literary conventions in Bible times and in ours must also be observed: since, for instance, non-chronological narration and imprecise citation were conventional and acceptable and violated no expectations in those days, we must not regard these things as faults when we find them in Bible writers…Scripture is inerrant, not in the sense of being absolutely precise by modern standards, but in the sense of making good its claims and achieving that measure of focused truth at which its authors aimed. The truthfulness of Scripture is not negated by the appearance in it of irregularities of grammar or spelling, phenomenal descriptions of nature, reports of false statements (e.g., the lies of Satan), or seeming discrepancies between one passage and another. It is not right to set the so-called “phenomena” of Scripture against the teaching of Scripture about itself.5

This articulation of inerrancy acknowledges that the mode of inspiration is difficult to understand; affirms the humanity of the biblical authors; recognizes the breadth of literary styles and ancient literary conventions in the Bible; assumes that biblical authors had a pre-scientific understanding of natural phenomena; and does not seek to explain away apparent difficulties in the text.

Bible Study

Yet some Christians who wholeheartedly affirm the truthfulness of Scripture feel that they cannot embrace the Chicago Statement in its entirety. Consider this passage:

We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.6

This assertion raises important questions: What is the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood, and can science ever be appropriately used to inform our understanding of Scripture? The true teaching of Scripture remains a matter of dispute among even sincere and informed Christians. This allows many to affirm that Scripture itself is inerrant even though they come to very different conclusions about what the Bible teaches regarding the age of the earth, evolution, and Noah’s flood. Does the Chicago Statement have the Young Earth position in view by the phrase “the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood” [emphasis added]? Some Old Earth and Evolutionary Creationists think so, and for that reason they do not affirm this statement.

Inerrancy does not tell us what the Bible affirms

The example above helps us to see that affirming the truthfulness of Scripture is separable from our ability to articulate the true teaching of any given passage of Scripture. Stated another way, inerrancy does not settle (nor was it intended to settle) the question of what a given portion of Scripture teaches. As theologian Kevin Vanhoozer says,

To say that Scripture is inerrant is to confess faith that the authors speak the truth in all things they affirm (when they make affirmations), and will eventually be seen to have spoken truly (when right readers read rightly).7

Vanhoozer’s definition reminds us to be humble and encouraged. Inerrancy is (or ought to be) the posture of believing the Bible to be true when heading into the challenging task of interpretation. We can enter into the difficult work of resolving apparent contradictions or textual difficulties without cynicism and with the hope of ultimate truth being found in God’s word.

The Bible contains obviously figurative language (e.g., Jesus said, “I am the vine” and “I am the bread of life”) as well as obviously historical claims (e.g., Jesus was raised from the dead). Between these extremes is a more difficult (and substantial) gray area that demands the hard work of careful interpretation. Christians who affirm biblical inerrancy do not agree on whether infants should be baptized, or whether women can serve in all ministry capacities, or whether Adam and Eve were historical figures. These are not disagreements about the inerrancy of Scripture, but disagreements about the proper interpretation of Scripture.

Evolutionary Creationists do not believe the Bible affirms and teaches that Earth is only a few thousand years old, nor that human beings are biologically unrelated to the rest of life. The human authors of Scripture may have believed these things, just as they believed that Earth is in the center of a three-tiered universe and that emotions come from our kidneys. Given their time and place, we would not expect them to believe differently about such things. By inspiring Scripture, God did not elevate the human authors from their specific cultures to some universal perspective. Instead, God taught through them. What Scripture affirms in the creation accounts is not a scientific explanation of how God created, but that the one true God did create and considered his creation good. Therefore the doctrine of inerrancy can be fully consistent with the acceptance of contemporary science—including evolution. Theologian J.I. Packer once wrote,8

I believe in the inerrancy of Scripture and I maintain it in print, but exegetically I cannot see that anything Scripture says, in the first chapters of Genesis or elsewhere, bears on the biological theory of evolution one way or the other.

Other ways of describing Scripture’s truthfulness

While inerrancy is a helpful term to many, for other Christians—who are just as committed to the authority and inspiration of Scripture—inerrancy has been linked with certain interpretations of Scripture and used as a litmus test for orthodoxy. Unfortunately, battle lines have been drawn, and because of the baggage the term “inerrancy” carries, many people prefer to find other ways to describe their commitment to Scripture’s trustworthiness.

The Lausanne Covenant, which predated The Chicago Statement by four years, uses the phrase “without error” but does not go on to make stronger claims about science:

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.

Fuller Theological Seminary was at a center of controversy in the 1970s when it removed “inerrancy” from its statement on Scripture. The Fuller statement of faith now reads:

Scripture is an essential part and trustworthy record of this divine self-disclosure. All the books of the Old and New Testaments, given by divine inspiration, are the written word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice. They are to be interpreted according to their context and purpose and in reverent obedience to the Lord who speaks through them in living power.

Because these labels are understood in so many different ways, Christians sometimes have more in common theologically with those who use different labels for biblical authority, than they do with some who use the same label.

Many people who are committed to these descriptions of Scripture hold to the same interpretations as those who use “inerrant.”

Does BioLogos affirm inerrancy?

In our desire to remain as inclusive as possible, within the bounds of orthodoxy, BioLogos does not take a position on whether Christians should or should not use the term “inerrant” to describe the Bible.

This topic is often highly charged. We urge people on both sides to begin with the presumption of goodwill in the people on the other side. Just because someone holds to inerrancy does not mean they have a wooden, unsophisticated interpretation of Scripture. And just because someone does not choose to identify as an inerrantist does not mean they have compromised on the integrity and trustworthiness of Scripture. We aim to provide resources and host conversation for those interested in exploring this important topic further.

BioLogos strongly affirms that the Bible is the inspired and authoritative word of God. As followers of Jesus we order our lives by God’s word and seek to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. This is only possible if we are regularly reading, hearing, and meditating on God’s word.

Last updated on November 20, 2023

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