God’s Transforming Word, Defining Some Terms, Part 2

“Inerrant”

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.

“Not inerrant”

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 …

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 …

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.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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10 Responses to God’s Transforming Word, Defining Some Terms, Part 2

  1. Terry says:

    Jay,
    Much of what you wrote seems irrelevant. Children's worship services (or instrumental music or any other such issue) is not the issue. The issue is: Is the Bible accurate and can it be trusted? It's not even a question of hermenautics. We may misunderstand how old the universe is, but the flaws would be in our understanding, not in the Bible's accuracy or reliability. In order to have faith in God, we must trust his promises. The question becomes: Is God trustworthy if we cannot believe him?

  2. joe the armchair the says:

    Hair-brained cemetarian dribble. Faith out the window. Deification of the human mind. Ability to find "errors" in the Bible made to be inputed as righteousness rather than faith.

  3. rey says:

    "But if the Bible has error, how can we know … ? Because the Bible is trustworthy, true, and to be lived with our complete devotion. "

    "Truth" without inerrancy is like a toothpaste that makes your teeth dirtier, or a shampoo that puts bubblegum in your hair. It doesn't work. That's why all who argue for it end up supporting homosexuality (just like you) and various other things that send people to hell. That's why the first thing that goes is any moral command and we're left with a believism that says "go sleep with your neighbor's wife (and your neighbor himself too, if that suits your fancy) and then say 'Jesus, Jesus, Jesus' a few time, never repent, and be assured of salvation anyway." This sort of thinking is earthly, sensual, devilish, to borrow a phrase from James 3:15. But wait, the great Jay Guin problably says that James 3:15 is an error.

  4. Rey, your attack on Jay is a straw man.

    Joe, your comment is simply incomprehensible. Try full sentences, with subjects and verbs.

    Jay, my sense of the question of inerrancy is that it enthrones the Bible as God and reason as Savior, by which one must be saved. Therefore, both Bible and reason must be perfect. The flawed logic (can it be called that?) of the gentlemen commenting above suggest this self-salvation doctrine that is inconsistent with reality.

    God is perfect. Jesus embodied perfect faith, perfect submission, perfect love.

    We accept that on faith.

    It's enough.

  5. Jay Guin says:

    Here's my opinion. I'm not saying inerrancy is right or inerrancy is wrong. I find the question tedious and uninteresting. And yet I have no quarrel with those who find it interesting.

    But regardless of all that, my point is simply that disagreeing with inerrancy need not be liberal — or even close to liberal. It is not an issue over which we should divide or damn.

    Now, I know this is the Church of Christ and we divide over all sorts of things — but it's wrong. The doctrine that unites is faith in Jesus, that Jesus is Lord. And those who truly make Jesus Lord are my brothers and sisters, regardless of their position on inerrancy.

    I've never had much patience for those who insist they can read the minds of their opponents, saying you don't have faith because you believe something I consider inconsistent with faith. No, if you believe, you believe.

    And so I'll not be discussing the merits of either side because, well, it's a tedious, uninteresting question that, in my opinion, distracts from interesting stuff — like how we're going to work together to build the Kingdom.

    I've thought about writing something explaining it all in more detail, but the more I study the question, the less I care about it. I find the arguments insufferably dull. And no matter how I try, I just can't explain either position well without appearing to advocate for it. And being boring. And I'd never want to be boring.

  6. Alan says:

    Jesus treated the OT scriptures as God-breathed, completely reliable, and the final word in any dispute. That is also how the NT writers treated scripture in their day. For that to be the case, God had to protect the message through the centuries. I believe He did so.

    Unless God has lost interest in mankind over the past 2000 years, I can't imagine why he would not have continued to protect the message up to the present day. He has not lost interest, and so I believe He has protected the message so that we have received it exactly as He intended.

    And so, we should also treat the scriptures (OT and NT) as God-breathed, completely reliable, and the final word in any dispute. We may disagree on the meaning of some scriptures — or how to harmonize certain passages. But that is evidence of our own fallibility, not of any supposed fallibilty of the scriptures.

    I am satisfied that one day we will see that the scriptures were accurate, and that there has always been a way to harmonize the passages perfectly. I'm ok with not having those answers today.

  7. Jay Guin says:

    Alan,

    I think that's very insightful. I see God's protective hand at work in preserving the scriptures as wonderfully as he has.

    We have questions about just which manuscripts reflect the original text, but the questions don't affect any doctrine of consequence.

    Hence, despite the imperfect transmission of the text, we can say with great confidence that the text we have is true, trustworthy, and to be lived. We have enough confidence to stake our lives and our souls on the text.

    We live according to the text and work in God's kingdom according to the text. And those who wonder about the woman taken in adultery or the last few verses of Mark can ask about them after the Judgment.

  8. Jon Shelton says:

    Jay,
    Your discussions always end up here – does X argument = a salvation issue or do we just make it so. Maybe the deeper issue of the bible being inerrant or not has to do with inspiration and in particular, how the scriptures were inspired to be written (another subject in itself). To those outside, I think that some of our "explanations" as to those problem passages aren't logical if we hold Holy Spirit verbal plenary inspiration. I have no answers to those things, in particular I think of the gospel accounts of the last few days of Jesus' life.
    However, we do have over 6000 manuscripts (pieces and whole) that give us a great view of what was originally written. Compare that confidence that we have in what was written being original to what historians consider absolute truth of history such as Caesar's Gaelic Wars or even the Roman History of Levy. More than number however, we have the short time gap between our earliest copies and the time the originals were written. Our confidence should be high that, as you put it, "the text we have is true, trustworthy, and to be lived. We have enough confidence to stake our lives and our souls on the text."
    Jon

  9. rey says:

    However, we do have over 6000 manuscripts (pieces and whole) that give us a great view of what was originally written.

    But what does that mean if what was written was written without inspiration? Say the tables were turned and we had 6000 manuscripts of Homer's works and 2 or 3 of the New Testament. Would it make you worship Zeus? Trustworthiness of copying does not equal religious truth. If the autograph was worthless, so are all the copies, even though they be faithful. Take Darwin's origin of the Species. I suppose all the modern printings are more or less faithful to the original. Does that make it the power of God to salvation? If we say that the Bible has errors, what we are saying is that the Bible is as irrelevant to our soul's eternal destination as Homer's stupid poems are, regardless how faithful our copies are to the original.

  10. Jay Guin says:

    rey,

    I'm not really interested in the question. The question that interests me is whether someone who is otherwise saved but doubts inerrancy remains saved.

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