Inerrancy or Interpretation? - How Evangelicals Err by Conflation

At the end of this semester I’ll have some more “Semester Highlights.” I have two Greek classes and a systematic theology class I am in right now and they’re shaping up to be pretty exciting, if intense. Until then, maybe I can share a few ‘What’s on my mind’ posts. This is that.

Evangelicals are allowing dictionary definitions of theological terms run away from their historical and theological definitions. I think this is evident in several areas, but for now I only want to focus on the doctrine of inerrancy.[1] The most conservative of Evangelicals have begun to conflate an important doctrine, that is, inerrancy, with the hermeutical method they subscribe to—whether they are fully aware of it or not. This does damage within our churches because: 1) It is not orthodox; 2) It gives us a phrase which we too-willingly weaponize and direct toward people with whom we disagree: ‘You deny the inerrancy of Scripture! That’s heresy!’ There is so much division right now, I’d prefer if we could make a little peace—in the church of all places.

If I had to guess why this is happening, I’d suggest it is because this group of Evangelicals feels threatened by the culture around them, so they retreat into places of black and white and hard lines. And if I had to go one step further, I’d suggest it is because pundits have become our theologians, and pundits are horrendous theologians.

What follows is not a full defense or explanation of inerrancy, but rather a definition and clarification based on the current cultural context. For a complete treatment of the topic, I recommend Millard Erickson’s chapter on inerrancy in Christian Theology. Any theological dictionary will also have an article along with any systematic theology book. There are many foundational components that I am not attempting to explain here.

What is Inerrancy?
Let’s go back to the basics. There has never been a monolithic adherence to a specific standard definition of inerrancy. Does that surprise you? While theologians as far back as Augustine articulated how dependable the Scriptures are, it was not until the Reformation that we acquired the vocabulary and more specific statements.

Inerrancy, as a word, indicates a spectrum on which people fall at different ends. It is a very narrow spectrum, however, making it even more bizarre that someone at one end can claim the person on the other denies inerrancy; they are both on the far end of conservative theology. This is why we need to return to the theological—not English dictionary—definition of inerrancy, so that we can flush out what does not belong in doctrine, but in the hermeneutical method.

Defining Inerrancy

Millard Erickson offers a helpful overview of the points on the spectrum of inerrancy. Here are the three most common views:

1.     “Absolute inerrancy holds that the Bible, which includes rather detailed treatment of matters both scientific and historical, is fully true.[2] Therefore, numbers (of people, for example) and the lengths (of the tabernacle, for example) must be exact.[3]

2.     “Full inerrancy” is equivalent with the above concerning the accurateness of what is “religious/theological/spiritual,” but deviates on matters of science and history because it “regards these references as phenomenal; that is, they are reported the way they appear to the human eye. They are not necessarily exact; rather, they are popular descriptions, often involving general references or approximations. Yet they are correct.”[4]

3.     “Limited inerrancy,” again, like the above, regard everything the Bible teaches about theological and spiritual things as fully trustworthy and inerrant. Unlike the above, “The Bible’s scientific and historical references reflect the understanding current at the time it was written. The Bible writers were subject to the limitations of their time.”[5]

Inerrancy and Interpretation

This is what I want to make clear: Literal six-day creationists and progressive creationists can both belong to definition 1. Someone who does not take the first chapter of Genesis literally does not deny inerrancy, not even at the furthest point on the spectrum. The person who argues for a literal six 24-hour day creation is likely an inerrantist, but what they articulate is actually a specific method of literal interpretation. To say it another way, it is not their belief in inerrancy that necessitates literal six-day creation, but rather their hermeneutical method.

It is important to keep in mind that inerrancy belongs to the author. In this case there is a dual authorship: human and Holy Spirit. If these authors intended Genesis 1 to be taken as a poem, complete with vivid imagery and metaphor, then inerrancy has not been violated when this interpretation is applied. Indeed, if this is true, then neither the Holy Spirit nor Moses (the traditional author of Genesis) intended to make a scientific statement either way. Both people committed to inerrancy need to be concerned about the author’s intended meaning—different hermeneutical methods will draw different conclusions.

The Bible is filled with different genres of literature (poetry, narrative, sermons, letters), each one needs to be interpreted with respect to its genre and context.

My hope is that we Christians could show more grace to each other, especially when we are so firmly in the same little corner of a theological camp. What I hear and see, however, are Evangelicals who are too excited to label others as “liberals” because they do not share the same interpretive method—even if both believe in an inerrant Bible.

Another thing that seems to be lacking in many Evangelicals' treatment of Scripture is the knowledge that the doctrines of inspiration and inerrancy only apply to the autographs—the actual stuff on which the biblical authors wrote. These doctrines have never applied to the copies of the original manuscripts. Evangelical textual critics feel very confident that we have 99% or better of the original, but it is not 100%, therefore, some humility would do all of us a lot of good.

[1] For another example, consider how we let God’s “omni” attributes become swallowed up by the etymology of the word. Omnipotence, most of us say, means all-powerful. When forced to define this we erroneously say this means God can do anything. No, there are many things God cannot do. Not the least of which is ceasing to exist.
[2] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. 191.
[3] Erickson offers an example that will force anyone to say exactly what they mean when they say that Scripture is perfectly accurate on every kind of matter. He points to 2 Chronicles 4:2, “…It measured 15 feet from rim to rim, was circular in shape, and stood seven and one-half feet high. Its circumference was 45 feet” (NET). If you require absolute accuracy, this example forces the reader to make at least one component more vague and open to interpretation. Anyone can perform the math here—but this “discrepancy” should threaten no one. It is a reasonable statement by all accounts and so when we construct a doctrine, it ought not to be so rigid as to disallow one from saying, “Surely not 45 fee exactly.”
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid., 192.