The previous post in this short explainer series discussed how the Bible is both a human and divine product. It is the word of God written in the words of men, an ancient collection of divinely-inspired writings expressed in thoroughly human language.
That post highlighted just one example of this human involvement in the penning of Scripture by drawing attention to the rough style of Greek of the evangelist Mark compared with the more polished Greek of Matthew or Luke. Thus, unless one insists that the Holy Spirit dictated a refined Greek to one evangelist and a more rough and ready version to another, one must accept an obvious element of human input.
Further evidence of this human involvement are the notable differences in expression and writing styles between, say, the apostles Peter and Paul (or other authors, for that matter). Consider, too, how Luke’s prologue to his gospel explicitly states he investigated everything to provide his reader with an orderly account (Luke 1:1-4). Luke was not merely an amanuensis (someone who writes as dictated). Rather, he contributed to the final words penned in his writings.
Consider, too, how throughout its pages the Bible exhibits various forms of human expression from its day. For example, Psalm 139:13 uses the word “kidney” to describe the innermost parts of man (language used elsewhere in the Old Testament), much like today we use the word “heart” in a similar sense. The New American Commentary series notes:
The kidneys were considered the seat of human emotions (Ps 73:21; Prov 23:16) or moral character (Ps 7:9; 26:2; Jer 11:20).Daniel Estes, Psalms 73-150 (NAC)
In short, then, the Bible did not fall out of the sky and the Christian understanding of revelation and the writing of divine scripture differs from that of other faiths (for example, the Koran or Book of Mormon). It was written by humans for humans and is a record of human expression of its day, albeit divinely ordained and supervised.
This unique human aspect inevitably raises a key question: If humans indeed played such a key role in the writing of the Bible might it contain errors? To refer to the Bible as being without error is known as inerrancy and it is this issue to which we now switch our focus.
Theories of Inerrancy
One would assume that anyone holding to a high view of Scripture could simply agree the Bible is inerrant. However, the issue is not quite so simple. Consider one of the items made for Solomon’s new temple, the cast metal sea (basin) as described in 1 Kings 7:23. The item is described as circular, ten cubits across and thirty cubits in circumference.
Yet the mathematical formula for establishing the circumference of a circle is 2 x Pi (3.142) x r (radius, i.e. half the diameter). According to this formula Solomon’s sea was therefore 31.42 cubits in circumference, not 30 cubits. Or it was not quite 10 cubits across. Or it was not a perfect circle. Whichever option one chooses, it renders the biblical account not quite accurate (or put another way, errant, rather than inerrant).
Another example of an apparent discrepancy is how 2 Samuel 24:9 records 500,000 swordsmen in Judah, yet the parallel account in 1 Chronicles 21:5 numbers 470,000 men of Judah who drew the sword.
For many believers this is nit-picking. The description in 1 Kings 7:23 is an approximation, they argue. The measurements have been simply rounded up or down and this verse was never meant to be read as a precise mathematical description. The same may be said about the troop numbers, with one account offering a general approximation and the parallel account being more specific.
This is indeed a highly reasonable position. Yet the above illustrations nonetheless highlight the issue of how one understands and defines inerrancy. The need for a more nuanced understanding of the concept becomes even more important when one is confronted with other passages in the Bible which are somewhat more challenging to explain. Thus, the word “inerrancy” is somewhat general and can be misleading, which is why various theories of inerrancy have arisen.
A useful discussion of theories of inerrancy can be found in Millard Erickson’s highly useful volume Christian Theology (which is a valuable tool for all Bible students who should have a copy in their personal theological library, as explained in our review of the book). Erickson organises the various positions on inerrancy into four categories:
Absolute inerrancy holds that the Bible, which includes rather detailed treatment of matters both scientific and historical, is fully true. The impression is conveyed that the biblical writers intended to give a considerable number of exact scientific and historical data.Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology
For proponents of this viewpoint there is little or no room for generalisations, approximations or human forms of expression as understood in their day but which are perceived scientifically or historically different today. Thus, a great deal of time and effort is devoted to explaining texts to fit in with this view the Bible as absolutely inerrant. For example, if Solomon’s sea was circular and 30 cubits in diameter this data has to be somehow explained and a solution found to reconcile these difficulties.
Full inerrancy also holds that the Bible is completely true yet it is not strictly scientific or historical in the data it gives. It is not designed to be a precise scientific book and the human actors and authors reported data and events as they saw them. Thus references…
…are not necessarily exact; rather, they are popular descriptions, often involving general references or approximations. Yet they are correct.Ibid.
The next position takes this last view a little further, conceding a little more. It is worth quoting Erickson’s succinct summary in full here…
Limited inerrancy also regards the Bible as inerrant and infallible in its salvific doctrinal references. A distinction is drawn, however, between nonempirical, revealed matters on the one hand, and empirical, natural references on the other. 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. Revelation and inspiration did not raise the writers above ordinary knowledge. God did not reveal science or history to them. Consequently, the Bible may well contain what we would term errors in these areas. This, however, is of no great consequence, since the Bible does not purport to teach science and history. For the purposes for which the Bible was given, it is fully truthful and inerrant.Ibid.
In short, the Bible contains inaccuracies but these in no way, it is argued, impinge upon its revelatory, salvific, theological and instructional aims.
Inerrancy of Purpose
Again, this position advances the previous one yet further (and in doing so demonstrates the progression of the “slippery slope” argument).
Inerrancy of purpose holds that the Bible faithfully accomplishes its purpose, which is to bring people into personal fellowship with Christ, not to communicate truths. It accomplishes this purpose effectively. It is improper, however, to relate inerrancy with factuality.Ibid.
This position holds that the Bible contains various errors, some far from insignificant. Nonetheless, it still achieves what it sets out to do theologically despite its various flaws and errors.
Comment and Concluding Remarks
At one end of the scale absolute inerrancy seems to be a position which is wholly unnecessary. It is surprising the amount of effort expended to explain intricately several of the example passages above when the answer is just as easily understood to be an approximation, or a description as understood from the day.
At the other end of the scale, inerrancy of purpose arguably chips away quite significantly at the notion of a collection of writings that, while involving humans, nonetheless was divinely supervised. If through the Bible we receive propositional truths one would at least expect to be broadly confident in its historical affirmations.
It seems reasonable, then, that for the most part conservative Evangelicalism best understands inerrancy to fall somewhere between full and limited inerrancy. Perhaps, though, as demonstrated through some of the issues briefly considered above, the word inerrancy is not always particularly helpful and focusing on the Bible as divinely inspired and authoritative is perhaps a more fruitful approach.
It should be noted that this brief article has discussed inerrancy within the context of the writing of the original text of the Bible. It is not concerned with scribal errors that occurred as the Bible were copied and transmitted in the centuries that followed. This area of study, which includes the emergence and methods of different Bible versions, is known as textual criticism and will be explored later in this short explainer series.