What Do We Really Mean by “Inerrancy”?

Much of our discussion about the doctrine of the scriptures centers around the doctrine of inerrancy. This is usually in reaction to those who would say that the scriptures are unreliable and unfaithful sometimes theologically, but also with respect to matters of science and history. They might be spiritually helpful or something like that, but they don’t communicate much truth about a lot of the things that they purport to. In response to this, most articulations of the doctrine of inerrancy assert something like the idea that the scriptures are true in all that they say, no matter whether it’s about theology, history, science, or anything else. In other words, the scriptures are without “error.”

What’s an Error?

However, any responsible doctrine of inerrancy needs to be defined carefully. After all, if inerrancy means that there are “no errors” in the bible, we need to talk about what counts as an error. For example, what about Jesus’ words from John 11:9, “Are there not twelve hours in the day?” Actually, Jesus, there are twenty-four hours in a day. Error. There’s also Leviticus 11:13-19 which classifies bats as birds. Error. Thus far, I’ve found at least two errors in the bible, which means that inerrancy can’t possibly be correct.

Yeah, not quite.

Any reasonable Christian is going respond that when Jesus says “day,” he’s referring to the light part of the day, the day as opposed to the night. John 11:10 makes this clear. Furthermore, there’s no reason that we should expect ancient Israelites to conform to our own system of classifying animals. At a certain level, our system is an arbitrary social construct. The Hebrew system of classification seems to tend to classify animals according to where they live or how they move (cf. Gen 1). So here bats are considered “birds” because they have wings and fly. In all honesty, it may even be better in the context of Lev 11 to translate “bird” as just something like “winged creature.” That’s what they mean when they use that word.

Now these were just two rather obvious examples of things that could be considered errors, but need not be. We have to be sensitive to the context of words and texts and not impose on them a meaning that they were not ever intending to convey.

This is why any responsible articulation of the doctrine of inerrancy will lay out what is not meant by an “error.” This usually includes things like inexact quotations, grammatical inconsistencies, figures of speech, phenomenological language (e.g. the sun standing still in Joshua 10), literary/narrative inconsistencies. An example of a narrative inconsistency would be John presenting the cleansing of the temple at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry instead of during Holy Week like the synoptics. However, this is not considered to be an “error” with respect to the doctrine of inerrancy. Now, this does not mean there isn’t an inconsistency here. John’s account of the order of events here seems to be inconsistent with the order of events in the synoptics. However, many will argue that John is presenting the order of events in a particular way for literary/rhetorical effect. He is not trying to give an exact timeline of the events of Jesus’ life. That’s not his goal. Luke, on the other hand, is trying to do this kind of thing more than John is. But this is why readers have to be sensitive to the intention of the authors in communicating truth.

We do this all the time every day. We communicate things in more or less precise ways. For example, giving someone the time can be done in rather loose and imprecise ways or in incredibly precise ways. For example, you might tell someone that a particular event happened in the morning. Well, what’s meant by “morning”? It’s vague and imprecise. Likewise, you might tell someone that it’s seven o’clock, when really it’s 7:08. The context will determine whether or not this answer is sufficiently precise. Or for an even more precise example, one might be editing a video or audio file and refer to a section that begins at 43 minutes and 45.659 seconds, an incredibly precise use of time. Yet, depending on the context, all of these discussions of time have been “true.” Less precise is not the same thing as less true. It’s just less precise, as determined by the needs of the context and the intention of the speaker.

The same thing is true of the biblical authors. We cannot demand that the biblical authors conform to our own standards of precision. They are not beholden to what we want. Instead, we need to do our best to try and determine what level of precision they themselves are operating with, because this does in fact change from context to context. As previously mentioned, John tends to be less precise in his retelling of events than Luke. This doesn’t mean that John is less truthful. It just means that John is taking more liberties in his retelling of these events than Luke is.

Reframing Inerrancy

While these kinds of discussions of exactly what we mean by inerrancy are helpful, it seems, at least to me, that the term “inerrancy” itself is less than helpful. While I agree with the doctrine of inerrancy, it seems that “inerrancy” is not the best word to describe what we’re actually talking about.

Additionally, I think that when we frame the issue in terms of “inerrancy,” we get ourselves ready to look for errors. And if you start looking for errors in the scriptures (or anything for that matter), you can find them. Instead, I think it’s more helpful to say that the scriptures are true. The scriptures are faithful accounts. This does not mean that parallel accounts of the same events (the four Gospels, for example) are going to have no inconsistencies, not at all. But it does mean that every parallel account will be a faithful account.

Especially when we’re talking about the Gospels, it’s helpful to compare this to four painters painting the same landscape. It would be foolish to expect each painting to come out exactly the same. Each painting is going to look a little different. Some paintings might even look really different, especially if different painters have a different style or a different philosophy of painting. Just imagine how different the same landscape would look if it were painted by Monet, Michelangelo, Van Gough, and Picasso. Yet even with all those differences we wouldn’t necessarily have to say that any of the paintings were unfaithful representations. Of course, it would be possible to paint an unfaithful representation, say painting a mountain in the middle of a plain. Yet different paintings, even wildly different paintings, can all be faithful.

Yet, if we were to approach our four paintings looking for errors, we would all of a sudden become overwhelmed with the mountain of discrepancies and inconsistencies. And if we were to take our cue from some New Testament scholars, we’d have to throw up our hands and say that there’s no way we can know anything about the landscape at all. In fact, the landscape that these four painters have painted might not even exist.

The Gospels as Movie Adaptations of Historical Events

In a similar vein, I think it’s helpful to think of the four Gospels as being similar to movie adaptations of historical people and events. In writing a film of the life of a historical person, the screenwriter has to make choices about how to tell the story of their life within the constraints allotted. There may be time constraints. You can’t make a twelve hour movie. There may be content restraints. The film may be interested in a particular aspect of a person’s life or they may want to portray a person in a particular way. Even outside of these constraints, the screenwriter and the production crew for the film have to make choices about how to tell the story of this person’s life. They have to decide how much liberty they are going to take in telling the story. If it’s a documentary, they will probably try to portray things with much more attention to the exact facts of their life. But if it’s a dramatic biopic, they may take more liberties.

For example, if one were making a biopic on the life Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one could decide to take content from multiple speeches that Dr. King gave over the course of the Civil Rights movement and patch them together into one speech for the purposes of the movie. You might portray certain related events, like police arrests, as happening in close sequence, when in reality there was much more intervening action and events. One could do all this and more and yet at the end of the day, you could say that the film is a faithful representation of the life of Dr. King. It’s even a true representation of the events that it portrays.

The reason we generally feel comfortable about saying this about a film is that we understand the level of precision expected of a film and we understand the literary intention and purpose behind the film. This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible for a film to actually portray someone’s life unfaithfully. Of course, it can. But this means something a bit more nuanced than just that some of the facts are not quite perfectly down.

I think it’s helpful to understand the Gospels as being kind of like this. For example, many faithful biblical scholars who would uphold the doctrine of inerrancy would say that the Sermon on the Mount as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel is actually Matthew combining together things that Jesus said at different times and in different places together into one speech. Others of course disagree with this. But neither scholar is denying inerrancy. They both believe that Matthew is faithfully and truthfully portraying Jesus’ words. The question is merely about what kind of liberties is Matthew taking in writing his Gospel.

What’s the Point of All This?

You may be wondering why all this even matters. What’s the purpose in talking about something like this?

Let me make it abundantly clear that my purpose is not to discredit the Gospels or the rest of the scriptures. That’s not what I’m doing.

My concern is a pastoral one. My concern is that when we frame the doctrine of inerrancy in terms of errors, we make problems for ourselves that don’t really need to be problems. When someone who has an un-nuanced doctrine of inerrancy studies the scriptures deeply and carefully, they’ll inevitably come across some of the differences and inconsistencies that we’ve explored here and may have some serious doubts of faith. This happens to so many people. They have an essentially fundamentalist doctrine of scripture and then we they actually undertake serious study of the scriptures, they find that what their pastor told them can’t be true because the “error” is staring them straight in the face.

I sincerely believe that we can save ourselves a lot of trouble if we simply frame this issue in the way that I’ve been describing. Framing the issue in terms of errors is a reactionary move in response to the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies of the twentieth century. Framing the issue in terms of truth and faithfulness is more accurate to what we really mean by inerrancy anyway.


Image from: Stocksnap CC0

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