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  • Writer's pictureM.B. Christiansen

How Should We Think About Biblical Inerrancy?

Many Christians, especially those within Evangelical circles, will often say that we believe that the Bible is inerrant. This is (obviously) my conviction as well, but do we really know what we mean when we say inerrancy?

 

Literally Without Error


The short, easy to digest answer is that when we say that Scripture is inerrant, we mean that it is literally without error.


If I have an idea that’s based on false information, you could say that my idea is errant (with error). If I say something that is objectively true, that statement is inerrant (without error). The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy fleshes out in much more detail what we mean, and this is the third article I have written in a series dealing with one’s view of Scripture (see here and here).

 

The claim for biblical inerrancy is a claim that the Bible is essentially true in the claims that it makes. Said another way, the things that Scripture tell us happened really happened in actual history. When the four gospel accounts all state that Jesus rose from the grave, we believe that Jesus actually rose from the grave and that this is a real event that happened in history.





Inerrancy means that Scripture is a firm foundation on which to build one’s worldview. But that does not mean that interpreting God’s Word is without its difficulties.


There are several factors that can lead to misunderstanding when we approach the Bible. The rest of this article will be spent on different ways we should and should not think of inerrancy. My goal is to identify different barriers that can cause a distortion of one’s view off inerrancy.

 

Hermeneutics: Exegesis V Eisegesis


A major factor we must consider when dealing with Scripture is that we are far removed from the original cultural context in which the biblical texts were written. As God’s inspired and revealed words to humankind, they are relevant to the believer living in any period of human history (2 Timothy 3:16), but for those of us who are living in a different culture from the original readers, there are things that require extra thought to understand. This does not mean that the original message of Scripture is unknowable, but we do need to exercise caution when we approach the ancient texts with modern eyes. A good commentary can go a long way in helping to understand the historical and cultural context in which any given book of Scripture was written. Who wrote it? Who were they writing to? What was going on in the world around them when they wrote?


Every believer who reads Scripture carries with them preconceived notions and ideas (through no faut of their own), which can influence our interpretation of the text. The task of good biblical study is to do one’s best to leave behind one’s cultural bias in order to receive the text as the original reader would have. The discipline of interpreting Scripture is often referred to as hermeneutics.


Exegesis is the term we use to describe an approach where we look carefully at the context to discern what the original author meant to communicate when the text was originally written. When studying Scripture, exegesis should always be the goal.


In everyday life, this is the best approach to discern the meaning of any given collection of words. Whenever we receive a text message or an email, we understand that the sender employed words meant to communicate certain ideas to us, and we read with the intention of knowing what the author’s message is. When we approach Scripture this way, we allow it to tell us what it means.


Here is where inerrancy comes in. In dealing with the Bible, the original message is inerrant, but that does not mean that my interpretation of that message is also inerrant. Inerrancy means that when there are problems with my theology, it is not Scripture which is at fault, but my own limited understanding. Humility and a teachable spirit go a long way towards good theology.


Eisegesis is where one approaches a text with their own preconceived ideas. I start with what I want Scripture to say, and I look for passages that can fit or support my already arrived at conclusions. Even well-meaning pastors and teachers find themselves guilty of this approach when we try to use Scripture to support whatever conviction we have. Whether the convictions we begin with are biblical or not, this approach divorces Scripture from its inerrancy by taking the objectively true words and applying them in ways in which they were not meant to be applied.


The example I use to illustrate eisegesis in youth ministry is to bring the students to one of my favorite Proverbs: “The wicked flee though no one pursues” (Proverbs 28:1 ESV). I then attempt to justify avoiding cardio exercise on the grounds that the Bible says that if you run when nobody is chasing you, that means you’re wicked.


The example is silly, but the methodology behind it is more common than we would like to admit. The point, for our purposes, is that in order to stand on Scripture’s inerrancy, one must honestly and openly approach the text with the goal not of coercing it into affirming our preconceived notions but of discovering the truth that God has revealed about himself. Sometimes that truth will force us to reconsider our preconceived notions. If you’re studying Scripture and never find yourself challenged or convicted, your hermeneutics may warrant a closer look.


Proverbs 28:1, when approached exegetically, is obviously not condemning joggers. Rather, it is pointing out the general truth that those who are guilty tend to be more paranoid and jumpy, while those with a clean conscious have no reason to fear.

 

Genres of Scripture


Another factor that can help us rightly understand the inerrant truth of Scripture is to realize that it is comprised of many books and that there are different genres of literature represented. Some of the books in Scripture are obviously presented as straightforward history, but other books (like Psalms and Proverbs) are poetry. Some books are letters written to individuals or groups of people, and some are largely prophetic visions (often recorded in poetic form). Just as is the case to the modern reader interacting with modern literature, the genre must heavily effect how one interacts with the text.


One should not look at Proverbs as dogmatic statements that are always true because it is a collection of wisdom sayings which offer tidbits of advice which are generally true. If one approaches the prophetic visions in Daniel and Revelation as literal, the result is bewilderment and confusion. Understanding the background and genre of each book is helpful because it allows you to discern what passages to take literally and which passages to take symbolically.


The four gospel accounts and Acts, for example, are written as biographical history and to take them as allegory obscures the authors’ clear original intention equally as much as taking symbolic features literally. If the authors of the Gospels unanimously agree that Jesus did literally walk on water, that must be honestly dealt with by the modern reader.

 

Reading with Common Sense


Often times, the conviction that Scripture is inerrant is equated with a “literal” reading of Scripture. I have never quite been comfortable with classifying my approach to Scripture as literal because that implies that there is no discernment and that everything is taken literally. One of the basic aspects of language is that we use words to communicate ideas, but not always in a literal fashion.


I once heard Frank Turek offer a great illustration of this by pointing to any given newspaper. The newspaper has the goal of offering the objective truth about things that are going on in the world (in principle). But even among the different sections of the paper language is used very differently. In the sports section, for example, hyperbole is used often to describe different sporting contests. If a Minneapolis sportswriter uses the headline Vikings annihilate Chicago, everyone reading the paper understands what is meant. By observing that the headline is on the sports page, we infer that we’re talking about football. Chicago is still standing; but their football team has been handily defeated.


This becomes relevant when we consider that hyperbolic language is used in Scripture as well. An obvious instance is when Jesus calls King Herod a fox in Luke 13:32. He is employing hyperbole to make a point about traits shared both by Herod and a furry woodland creature (both are cunning, yet skittish and unthreatening). Jesus technically makes the claim that Herod is a fox, but the audience understands that Jesus is not claiming that Herod is a literal fox. Common sense is required in biblical study just as it is in every other area of life.

 

We are Secondary Readers


We need to understand that we are secondary recipients of God’s Word. One way I have heard this explained is that Scripture was written for us but wasn’t written to us. When Moses wrote the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, & Deuteronomy), he was writing to the Hebrew people who were wandering in the wilderness after they had left Egypt and before God gave them Canaan.


When God revealed himself to Moses and inspired him to write, God was speaking first to the Israelites living in Moses’ immediate cultural context. We, living thousands of years later, can still certainly glean truth from God’s Word and should allow it to have authority in our lives, but we must understand that he was speaking first to the Israelites and secondarily to us. The Israelites were saturated in Ancient Near-Eastern culture, so God spoke to the Israelites in terms they would understand.


This is the beauty of God’s Word. Consider that the creation account in Genesis 1 & 2 shares a great many similarities to other Ancient Near-East, which makes good sense if God is revealing himself in language and imagery that the Israelites would resonate with and understand. In doing so, God communicated his timeless truth to all of mankind. This serves at once to communicate truth in an accessible way to the original recipients, while also serving as a polemic against the pagan creation accounts. The Genesis account is similar, but also very distinct from, other Ancient Near-East creation accounts. It serves to correct the errant ideas and replace them with God’s truth.


This would have been clear and obvious to the Israelites in the Sinai wilderness but is a potential stumbling block for the modern reader, approaching it with a linear, straightforward, scientifically oriented mind. The inerrancy of Scripture does not mean that we need to expect every aspect of the Creation account to fall neatly in line with the prevailing scientific theories because God was not writing to us, but to the ancient Israelites. Why would God have explained the creation of the world to a pre-scientific ancient people in modern scientific terms that would have sailed over their heads? What God revealed to Moses about creation is objectively true, and was everything that the Israelites needed to understand that their God was set apart from the myriad of other gods awaiting them in Canaan.

 

God’s Purposes for Revelation


One final point to keep in mind when we consider the nature of Scripture’s inerrancy is God’s ultimate goal in revealing himself to humankind. The height of God’s purposes in creating humankind is to have a relationship with us. A relationship in which we rightly give God honor and praise is the goal, and Scripture has been given in order to show humankind the truth about sin and the way back to a right relationship with God (through Christ).


I firmly believe that the Bible is absolute in its true and that it ought to be the highest authority, on which anyone serious about following Jesus must base their life. In Scripture, God has revealed everything we need to come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ and to enter into a relationship with God. The Bible tells us everything we need for salvation. But it does not tell us everything about everything.


This is an imperative concept to grasp if one wishes to put Scripture in its rightful place. God did not write a scientific manual detailing how he created everything out of nothing, because that is not God’s purpose for Scripture. Through God’s Word, we are given everything we need to come to a saving faith, and the rest of the knowable is left for us to work out for ourselves through the intelligent faculties given to us by a good and loving God.


All truth is God’s truth. The practical outworking of biblical inerrancy is that God gives us the foundational truth through which we can enter into a reconciled relationship with him, and the rest of the intellectual disciplines (biology, geology, mathematics, psychology, sociology, etc.) serve to fill in the blanks.

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