“Inerrancy” is a word you may not actually hear spoken all that often in evangelical churches. But make no mistake: the belief that scripture is and must be without error underpins an awful lot of evangelical theology and lies not far beneath the surface in many churches.
While there’s no universal agreement on precisely what is meant by biblical inerrancy, there is at least one documented explanation in the form of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. Since my purpose here is not to examine the whole notion of inerrancy, I won’t bother to reproduce the whole thing (if you’re interested, you can read it here). But I would like to quote the statement’s final two points:
4. Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives.
5. The authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded, or made relative to a view of truth contrary to the Bible’s own; and such lapses bring serious loss to both the individual and the Church.
In case you find their wording obscure, allow me to translate these two points into simple language: the Bible contains absolutely nothing that is mistaken; and either the whole Bible is absolutely true, or none of it is at all reliable. That’s right, folks: it’s an all or nothing deal.
I used to believe in the inerrancy of scripture, but I don’t any more. For me, it’s really important not to. The reason? Well, to put it bluntly, I think you can believe either in the inerrancy of scripture or in the God fully revealed by Jesus, but not both.
Let me try to explain.
For my money, if you take Jesus’ teaching and example at all seriously, you’re forced to conclude that he was all about enemy love. His teaching, from the beatitudes right on through his ministry, was unambiguous on the subject: you don’t meet violence with violence, even if it costs you your life. And his example was clear: he embodied what he taught, to the point of allowing himself to be nailed to an executioner’s cross rather than defend himself or have his followers (or legions of angels) do so.
Now, Jesus also taught that he was the perfect image of the Father. We’re forced to conclude from this that if Jesus was absolutely one hundred percent dead set against retribution, then God must me similarly non-retributive. As I see it, there are only two ways for this not to be true.
The first way for it not be true that God is non-retributive is that Jesus was wrong when he said he fully imaged the Father. Hopefully we can dismiss this option out of hand.
But if Jesus was correct in his claim to fully reflect the Father’s character, there’s only one other way to support a belief that God is, after all, retaliatory. That is to believe that Jesus revealed God as he is at the moment, but that some day God will set aside his peaceableness and vent his anger at unrepentant sinners.
There is, of course, an obvious problem with this too. Inerrantists are typically quick to point out that Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever. If that’s true, and if Jesus’ claims to perfectly represent the Father are also true, then it follows that the Father is also the same yesterday, today and forever. Ergo, it makes no sense to say that God is enemy-loving and non-retributive today, but that a day is coming when he will throw off his peaceable face and let rip with violent retribution.
Let me sum up where we’ve come to so far: if Jesus’ claims about his relationship to the Father are true, and if what the Bible says about Jesus’ unchanging nature is true, then God must be entirely and always enemy-loving and non-retaliatory in nature.
With me so far? Good.
“But what has this to do with inerrancy?”, I hear you ask. Actually, it’s quite simple.
In short, the Bible contains contradictions in how it describes or portrays the character of God. There are various examples we could look at, but let’s just pick one for our purposes here. According to the Old Testament, God commanded Joshua to destroy all the inhabitants of various Canaanite cities, including innocent women and children. (I’m assuming no one’s going to seriously argue that women and children aren’t “innocent”.) For example, see Deuteronomy 20:16-18 and Joshua 6:21 and 8:25.
Now, if the whole Bible really is inerrant, that means God really did command the slaughter of innocents. If that’s true, then Jesus’ supposed revelation of God as enemy-loving and non-retaliatory begins to look a little shaky.
In summary, I’m forced to conclude as follows:
– If the Bible is entirely inerrant, God cannot be relied upon to be enemy-loving and non-retaliatory. He’s certainly that way some of the time, but clearly not all of the time. Thus – and this is the important bit – Jesus’ teaching and example of enemy love and non-retribution can be taken with a substantial pinch of salt because it doesn’t really reveal the eternal character of God.
– On the other hand, if Jesus, through his teaching and example of enemy love and non-retribution, genuinely revealed the unchanging heart of the Father (see Hebrews 13:8), then the whole text of scripture simply cannot be entirely inerrant.
In other words, you can have Jesus as the faithful, true and unchanging image of the Father, or you can have your inerrant Bible. What you absolutely can’t have is both.
[ Image: Ryk Neethling ]