Now denominations have split over the meaning of the non-Biblical word “inerrant.” While many pretend that it’s a black-and-white question, it’s really filled with shades of gray, so that many people who claim to believe the Bible to be inerrant are considered outside the inerrancy camp by others also in the inerrancy camp. Let me explain …
The strictest use of the term, I suppose, is to claim that the King James Version has no error of any kind in it. When I was quite young, my Bible teachers taught exactly this and would have fainted at the thought that the KJV has many errors in it. It does.
Today, very few Christians take such a view. Most who teach inerrancy assert that the “autographs” are inerrant — the autographs being the original manuscripts penned by the original writers of the scripture. None of these have been preserved for us, and there are disputes as to just what text was in the autographs.
We have good reason to be highly confident of our texts, although there are minor portions that are in legitimate dispute. However, the oldest Old Testament manuscripts we have are centuries younger than the autographs and we have less confidence in them than in the New Testament text. But among conservatives, there’s no serious theological dispute that hinges on a textual dispute. We know enough to be quite confident of what God says through his scriptures.
But among those who teach inerrancy, there are some differences of opinion. Some hold that inerrancy requires that we accept a young earth creation (about 6,000 years ago). Others hold that we can read Genesis 1 figuratively without violating inerrancy, and so they are fine with a $13.8 billion year old universe.
Similarly, in the New Testament, the parallel accounts in the Gospels are resolved differently within the school of inerrancy. For example, in John, Jesus is recorded as cleansing the temple at the beginning of his ministry, but Luke and Matthew record that event as at end of his ministry. How are the accounts reconciled within the school of inerrancy? Well, some hold that there were two cleansings. Others hold that there was only one cleansing but John (or Matthew) rearranged the materials for literary reasons. Of course, some of those who hold to the two-cleansings theory consider those who hold to the one-cleansing theory to deny inerrancy and so to be “liberal” — indeed, to have no faith. (But, of course, the New Testament defines “faith” as faith in Jesus, and it’s quite possible, indeed, surprisingly common, to have faith in Jesus and to deny inerrancy, regardless of whether it is logically consistent to do so.)
Similar arguments have broken out over whether the Flood was planet-wide or was local and yet big enough to drown most of Adam’s descendents, who’d not yet covered the planet. Of course, some of those who insist on a planet-wide flood brand those who argue for a local flood as “liberal” although many in the local flood camp consider themselves as supporting inerrancy.
When someone rejects the inerrant position, they may well be truly liberal, or they may think that John got the date of the cleansing of the temple wrong — perhaps purposely to make a point as he argues for faith in Jesus — but consider the story nonetheless true and an important lesson on how to live for Jesus. The two views are, of course, radically far apart. One school questions whether Jesus lived at all and whether we can even know what he did on earth. The other has faith in Jesus as Son of God and Lord and yet isn’t troubled by the ordering chosen for the writing of the Gospels.
This would be, I think, the position of many of those in the emerging movement, but it’s also the position of a great number of very conservative ministers and students of the Bible, who’ve noticed the timing issues and figured such concerns are of little import, don’t preach or teach on the topic, and find truth in the scriptures without worrying about such things.
A little more history
The inerrant position has been greatly bolstered in the last 100 years by archaeological and similar studies that have shown the scriptures to be far more accurate than was alleged by many liberal theologians. The Tübingen School was particularly critical of Luke and Acts as allegedly ignorant of history. Luke has now been shown to have been far more knowledgeable of First Century history than the Tübingen scholars.
And recent studies in the Gospels have helped show that many alleged inconsistencies are not inconsistencies at all. N. T. Wright’s series on “Christian Origins and the Question of God” is particularly useful — although he would not consider himself as teaching inerrancy.
But it wouldn’t be fair to say that every single dispute has been resolved. Rather, the extreme liberalism of 100 years ago has been proven wrong, bringing much of Christianity much closer to the inerrancy position, but not all the way there. Many very conservative scholars continue to believe that archaeology contradicts the Old Testament prior to, say, the time of Omri or David. But then, although there are serious questions, many Biblical claims that were once dismissed as myth have now been shown as good history. But many issues remain.
Hence, many in the inerrancy camp are confident that future discoveries will validate inerrancy. Others see issues that are inherent unresolvable. Others don’t care.
Inerrancy and salvation
But the tough part of the inerrancy argument is when we suggest that inerrancy is essential to salvation or that we must divide from those who disagree with our particular brand of inerrancy. It’s argued that if the Bible isn’t inerrant, it’s unreliable and so we have no basis for faith. I’ve seen young-earth creationists damn those who believe in an ancient earth by this logic or global Flood proponents damn those who believe in a local Flood.
But this is a false dichotomy. It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. It’s just not. I know because I know people who think they see error in the Bible and who have intense faith and live lives of great devotion — be that logical or not, it happens.
And I’ve seen young people lose their faith because they were taught that if you find a single mistake of any kind in the Bible, there is no God. They discover an inconsistency between Matthew’s Last Supper and John’s, find no one who can reconcile the two with conviction, and leave church forever. I’ve seen it.
I’m sickened by the fighting. Rather than seeking and saving the lost, we fall out fighting over the age of the earth or when Jesus cleansed the temple. I don’t think our mission is to fight over such things.
Worse yet, we’ve trained ourselves to see liberalism in nearly all disagreements. And so as soon as someone suggests that it might be okay to have a children’s worship during the worship hour, we see visions of denial of the virgin birth and go on a heretic hunt. My own church has been disfellowshipped by another Churches of Christ over our children’s worship — and we’ve been branded as hopelessly “liberal” because of it. It’s ridiculous.
As I’ve been saying for a very long time, the scriptures point us toward Jesus and faith in him — born of a virgin and miraculously resurrected nearly 2,000 years ago. That is the only doctrine with the power to unite.
Moreover, it’s a doctrine quite sufficient to call us toward evangelism and relief of the suffering of the needy. But the gospel — the true gospel — calls us to unity and to war against Satan — not each other.
But if the Bible has error, how can we know … ? Because the Bible is trustworthy, true, and to be lived with our complete devotion. The order in which Jesus cleansed the temple has nothing to do with that. The age of the earth has nothing to do with that.
But if we don’t deal with this now, won’t we … ? No. The world that surrounds us does not care about such things. They think the fact that the church fights over such things proves us to be judgmental and idiotic. They are right.
But doesn’t the Bible claim to be inerrant? It’s an interesting question over which Christians argue, but the claim the Bible makes is to be God-breathed — that is, given by the power of God’s Spirit. That is not necessarily the same thing. Or perhaps it is. It’s a question on which Christians of good will can disagree and still love each other.
So what so wrong with publishing a one-volume commentary that raises questions of inerrancy?
Well, it’s about priorities and timing. The Churches of Christ do not need this issue resolved — or even raised — right now. It’s about 99 on the list of priorities. Maybe 999. Rather, the important topic is grace — can we disagree and still consider one another brothers?
You see, once we’ve worked through that question, then we can have an intelligent, thoughtful discussion of inerrancy (if anyone still cares). But today, merely raising the question heightens tensions among the warring camps — drawing us further apart, making conversation on other subjects more difficult.
Resolving the disputes within the Churches of Christ won’t just happen. Rather, if we care about our Movement enough to want to remain united, those who care need to think strategically about how a reconciliation can occur. What has to happen to change minds? How can we have a conversation about those things that divide us? And inerrancy doesn’t get us there. In fact, it makes it harder.