In many circles, especially those influenced by American evangelicalism (which seems to be everyone!), biblical inerrancy is a hot topic. Even if you haven’t come across the issue very much it’s still an important concern, as it goes to the heart of why we believe what we believe. John Woodhouse recently spoke on biblical inerrancy at a conference on Christian leadership; what follows here (and in a follow-up article next issue) is an edited version of that address.
Briefly stated, biblical inerrancy means that the Bible is without error. This is an aspect of what we might call the Christian doctrine of Scripture. A fuller statement of that doctrine would include such subjects as the inspiration of Scripture (the divine origin of Scripture); the authority of Scripture (which entails the believer’s submission to the Bible’s teaching); the infallibility of Scripture (which speaks of the unfailing effectiveness of the Bible to achieve its purpose); the sufficiency of Scripture (which means that in the Bible we have all we need to know from God); the clarity of Scripture (which affirms that the Bible is understandable); the canon of Scripture (what counts as Scripture and how do we know?); and more. Each of these is a big and important subject. In these days of widespread ignorance of the Bible, I hope that you see the importance of our churches understanding and believing the wonderful Christian doctrine of Scripture. I intend to focus in this article on one facet of that doctrine: the inerrancy of the Bible.
I want to propose that biblical inerrancy is a more radical and important idea than many of its proponents and critics sometimes seem to grasp. It is more than the claim that the Bible is completely true in all its historical details and other particulars. That claim is consequential on—and I would say subordinate to—a bigger, more dramatic, and more powerful truth at the heart of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy.
I intend to approach our subject by reflecting on four questions:
- What is the Bible? That is, what is the nature of that which is supposed to be inerrant? If you claimed that a telephone directory was free from errors, it is relevant to understand that your claim is about a telephone directory—and what a telephone directory is. Well, then, what is the Bible? What is it that the doctrine of inerrancy claims is free from error?
- What is “inerrancy” when it is applied to the Bible? That is, when we affirm biblical inerrancy, what are we really affirming and what are we denying? When you say a telephone directory is free from error, you might be saying that the numbers have all been checked and are 100% correct: not one digit out of place. You might be saying more. What do we mean, or should we mean, when we claim that the Bible is inerrant?
- Can the doctrine of biblical inerrancy be misused or misunderstood? Most sound doctrines can be misapplied. It is true of any Bible teaching that it is only properly understood when it is properly applied. That is, we should not only ask what the Bible teaches us, but also why the Bible teaches us this truth. If it is a true Christian doctrine (that is, if it accords with the Bible’s own teaching), then in what ways do Christians (and perhaps others) misapply or misuse the doctrine?
- What is the use of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy? We will turn finally to some of the positive effects of the inerrancy of the Bible. We will think in particular about what it means for our understanding and practice of Christian leadership that we have an inerrant Bible.
In this article I will deal with the first two questions, leaving the third and fourth to the next issue.
1. What is the Bible?
a. The Bible is the word(s) of God
The Bible is the word of God. More than this, the Bible is the words of God. All Scripture is God-breathed. “All Scripture” in 2 Timothy 3:16 means “all Scripture”—every word.
This of course is the doctrine of biblical inspiration—more accurately biblical expiration. In 2 Timothy 3:16 Paul seems to be referring to the present functioning of the Scriptures, rather than their origin. “All Scripture is God-breathed” rather than “was God-breathed”.1 As the words of the Scriptures are read, God breathes these words to the reader or hearer. That is what it means for these words—which, of course, were written by men—to come with the power of the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Thess 1:5). We are hearing not the word of man, but the voice of the living God (cf. 1 Thess 2:13). The Scriptures are “able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 3:15) and are “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17) because that is God’s purpose as he breathes the words of Scripture to us. Of course if that is what the Scriptures are now—the words that God speaks to us—then it follows that that is how they began. They were breathed out by God. As Peter put it, “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:21).
This is the Christian view of the Scriptures because it is Jesus’ view of the Scriptures. On the one hand he said, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning [that is, of course, God] made them male and female and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’” (Matt 19:4-5). As I hope we all know very well, Jesus was quoting the words of the human writer of Genesis 2—not explicitly words spoken by God in the context—and saying that this is what God said. Why? Because what Scripture says, God says.
This is even more starkly illustrated by Jesus’ use of the Scriptures on another occasion, when he said to the Sadducees who were interrogating him about the resurrection of the dead, “Have you not read what was said to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’?” (Matt 22:31-32). Jesus was saying to his contemporaries that the words of Exodus 3:6 were spoken by God to you. Scripture is not only what God said, it is what God says.
I trust that this understanding that the Bible is the words of God is thoroughly understood by us, and firmly believed. It is one of those truths we must take care to teach, and not simply assume. I recommend to you B.B. Warfield’s classic essay, “The Biblical Idea of Inspiration” for a careful laying out of the biblical teaching. I have noted other classic treatments of this subject that I believe should not be neglected.
The doctrine of biblical inerrancy is about the Bible, understood to be what it is: the words of God.
b. The word of God is the promise of God
We need to go a little further. If we say no more than the Bible is God’s words, it could be misunderstood to be a matter of information only—as though what we have in the Bible is a divinely inspired account of the history of Israel, the life of Jesus, the teaching of the apostles—and a number of other subjects. And the person who believes the doctrine of biblical inerrancy will be a person who believes that there are no errors in the accounts of these things: the place names are right, the dating is correct, the events happened as described.
However the Bible is more than information. God’s word is not simply divinely reported facts. God’s word is God’s promise. The promise God made to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3 is the Bible’s theme. It was the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ announced in advance (Gal 3:8). The God who in the beginning, created all things has promised to bring blessing to all the nations of the world through the seed of Abraham.
The message of the whole Bible is that God has been faithful and will be faithful to this promise. The gospel of Jesus is the news of the fulfilment of God’s promise in the person and work of Jesus (see Acts 13:23, 32; 26:6; Rom 1:2; 15:8; 2 Cor 1:20). And yet the gospel retains the character of promise: “The promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:39; cf. Rom 4:16).
Once again I trust that this understanding of the shape of the Bible is familiar—we call it Biblical Theology. The works of Graeme Goldsworthy continue to be very important in their exposition of the Bible’s texture as promise and fulfilment. The promise to Abraham is fulfilled in the long history leading to the kingdom of David and Solomon. Then, when that kingdom collapsed, the promise moved up a gear in the prophets, who basically say that God will fulfil his promise to Abraham on a grander scale still. Then Jesus announces, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15). Even the gospel news of this fulfilment carries God’s promise: “When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col 3:4).
God’s word to us—which is what the Bible is—is fundamentally, essentially, at its heart, a promise. That is what the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is about.
c. Isn’t the Bible more than the promise of God?
I am aware that for some this is not yet a satisfactory presentation of our subject. It has a reductionistic feel. I have argued that the Bible’s theme is God’s promise. But surely there is much more in the Bible than God’s promise—for a start, there is God’s law. But also there are historical narratives, wisdom, poetry—not to mention, of course, the accounts of creation. Surely the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is about more than the promise.
Yes it is. But no it isn’t. We do not understand the “more than” properly if we do not see that it is all tied up with the promise. In other words, we do not simply have in the Bible historical records that are intended to inform us about certain events in the ancient world, which we might supplement with other data from archaeology, and thus “know what happened”. Nor do we have a stand-alone law code that just embodies universal moral principles, or wisdom that is no more than how life works, or songs designed to stir the human spirit. Rather, the biblical historical accounts, laws, wisdom, poetry and everything else are all related to the promise. The Bible records the history in which the promise was made and kept. The Bible’s laws are the demands of the one who has promised, because he has promised. The wisdom is an aspect of the promised blessing. And so on.
The point is that we must not separate out the history (or anything else in the Bible) from the promise. In answer to our first question, “what is the Bible?”, I am saying it is (a) God’s words, which (b) have at their heart God’s promise, and (c) much more that testifies to and flows from God’s promise.
This brings us to our second question.
2. What is ‘inerrancy’ when it is applied to the Bible?
a. The character of God who has spoken
In the first place the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is a statement about God.
The fact that the Bible is the words of God leads to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy because of the character of God. It is as inconceivable that the Bible contains errors as it is to say that God makes errors. God does not make errors, nor does he lie or deceive. In other words, the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is simply an expression of faith in the character of God, given the nature of the Scriptures as his words.
This is more important than we may realize. Faith in God is only possible because God is faithful—that is, trustworthy. God’s faithfulness is essential to his love. God’s love is faithful love.2 It is fair to say that the whole Bible testifies to God’s faithfulness. That is why the Christian religion is characterized by faith. All religions worship, and have traditions, and so on. Christianity is faith in God. The character of God shapes our response to God.
Within the broad testimony to God’s faithfulness that the Bible is, consider the explicit statements found repeatedly:
“Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and repays to their face those who hate him, by destroying them.” (Deut 7:9-10a)
“The Rock, his work is perfect,
for all his ways are justice.
A God of faithfulness and without iniquity,
just and upright is he.” (Deut 32:4)
I will sing of the steadfast love of the Lord, forever;
with my mouth I will make known your faithfulness to all generations. (Ps 89:1)
His faithfulness is a shield and buckler. (Ps 91:4c)
The works of his hands are faithful and just;
all his precepts are trustworthy. (Ps 111:7)
God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. (1 Cor 1:9)
He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it. (1 Thess 5:24)
…he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 Jn 1:9)
The faithfulness of God—and therefore our faith in God—is not an abstract and vague idea. It is not simply a quality attributed to God in some philosophical conception of what God must be like. God’s faithfulness—at least in our experience—is all about his word. Trusting God means trusting his word. His faithfulness means that he is truthful. Another way of speaking of his faithfulness is this:
“This God—his way is perfect;
the word of the Lord proves true;
he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him.” (2 Sam 22:31)
“I the Lord speak the truth;
I declare what is right.” (Isa 45:19c)
Jesus prayed: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” (Jn 17:17)
Let God be true though everyone were a liar, as it is written,
“That you may be justified in your words,
and prevail when you are judged.” (Rom 3:4)
And he who was seated on the throne said, “…these words are trustworthy and true.” (Rev 21:5c)
The Christian gospel and the Christian religion would be something altogether different if the heart of it all was not the perfect trustworthiness of God.3 And to trust God means to believe his word. That is what faith in God is. And we only believe God’s word by believing God’s words. Believing God’s words means believing they are true. They are not deceptive, nor are they mistaken.
However, just as we have gone a step further in our description of what the Bible is, we need to take our understanding of biblical inerrancy a step further.
b. The inerrancy of the promise
We have seen that God’s word to us is fundamentally, essentially, at its heart, a promise. The doctrine of biblical inerrancy, first and foremost, means that the promise we hear as we read the Bible is completely true.
Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. (Heb 10:23)
The doctrine of biblical inerrancy—at least the essential heart of this doctrine—is an expression of Christian faith—of believing the gospel. Faith, in Christian terms, is believing God’s promise. It’s like Abraham: The Lord said to him, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them. So shall your offspring be” (Gen 15:5). That is the promise. And Abram believed the Lord. He trusted God’s promise. His faith excluded the idea that God’s promise was either deceitful or mistaken.
Let me put that the other way around. Christian faith is only possible if we have a clear and true promise from God. Christian faith is not a vague belief that there is a God. Nor is it the almost equally vague idea of a ‘relationship’ with God. It is not a grown up version of the imaginary friend. Neither is it mystical—a sense of awe and wonder at the greatness and incomprehensibility of God. Those things may have varying degrees of validity and invalidity, but they are not faith. Faith is the experience of understanding and believing God who has spoken a promise. Unless the promise is comprehensible and true, faith is either impossible or deluded.
Faith is trusting God’s sure, certain and true promise (cf. Heb 6:13-20). The promise is God’s word to us. God’s word to us is the Bible. God’s promise is neither deceitful nor mistaken. That is, the Bible is inerrant.
This is the astonishing, life changing, revolutionary reality of biblical inerrancy: we have, in the Bible, a promise from God that is completely and utterly true. Our faith is described in the Bible as “knowledge of the truth” (Titus 1:1). This knowledge of the truth is further described as “hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began, and at the proper time manifested in his word…” (Titus 1:2-3).
c. The inerrancy of the “more than”
Discussions of biblical inerrancy are generally not content with this. The question is pressed: What about the parts of the Bible that are “more than” the promise? For our purposes I will concentrate on biblical history, partly because that is where most attacks on biblical inerrancy focus. We could have a similar discussion of biblical law, wisdom, poetry, and so on. But let’s ask, “What does biblical inerrancy mean for the Bible’s presentation of history?”
The first thing to say is that the Bible tells us of the promise itself as an historical event. It involved a man named Abram, in a place called Haran, at a time we can estimate to have been about 2000 BC. The promise came in this way. The Bible tells us that at that time, that man, in that place heard the promise of God. We cannot extricate the promise from the history. To believe that the promise is true must entail believing that the history occurred. If God did not speak then and there to Abram, I cannot see how it would be possible to believe that there is a promise from God, let alone believe the promise.
But if (for whatever reason) you come to believe the promise, you must believe the history.
The history that then unfolds in the pages of Scripture is the history of the promise, or rather the history of what has happened because of the promise. Whenever I read an Old Testament historical narrative, I ask the question, “What has this account got to do with the promise God made to Abraham?” There may be various answers to that question, but in most cases it will have something to do with God’s faithfulness and power to fulfil his promise.
Let me illustrate. The book of Joshua is the account of the Israelites’ remarkable entry into the land of Canaan—which we (significantly) call the promised land. But what is that all about—the falling walls of Jericho, the battles, the victories, the allocation of the land to the tribes? The book is summed up in Joshua 21:43-45:
Thus the Lord gave to Israel all the land that he swore to give to their fathers. And they took possession of it, and they settled there. And the Lord gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their fathers. Not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the Lord had given all their enemies into their hands. Not one word of all the good promises [literally, words] that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass. (Josh 21:43-45)
My summary of the book of Joshua: The Lord made a promise to Abraham. Look at what happened! His promise proved to be true. Utterly true. Not one word of all the good words that the Lord spoke failed. Let me put it like this: history has proven the ‘inerrancy’ of the promise. It is as important for the history to be true as it is for the promise to be true.
Add to this a reminder that the historical accounts in Scripture are God’s own testimony to the events that demonstrate his faithfulness, and I hope we can see how strange it would be to suggest that these accounts err.
My hunch is that at least some of us still have issues we would like addressed, but we will leave it there for now. I will try to touch on some of these in our next instalment as we think about our final questions: “Can the doctrine of biblical inerrancy be misused or misunderstood?”, and “What is the use of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy?”.
- The argument here is from the sense of the context, not from Greek grammar. The Greek phrase itself could be translated “is God-breathed” or “was God-breathed.” ↩
- See Colin Gunton, “Trinity and Trustworthiness,” in Paul Helm and Carl Trueman, eds, The Trustworthiness of God: Perspectives on the nature of Scripture, Apollos, Leicester, 2002, pp. 275-284. ↩
- Paul Helm, “The Perfect Trustworthiness of God,” in Paul Helm and Carl Trueman, eds, The Trustworthiness of God: Perspectives on the nature of Scripture, Apollos, Leicester, 2002, pp. 237-252. ↩