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Biblical Inerrancy [1]

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Date February 15, 2011

The first part of a paper delivered at the 2009 Theological Conference of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland. The concluding part can be found here.

Attacks upon the doctrine that there are no errors in the Bible are not new. As the history of the Scottish Church in the late nineteenth century demonstrates, they are not new even within professedly Evangelical circles. But they have emerged more recently within Evangelicalism after a period when belief in biblical inerrancy was one of the generally recognised characteristics of Evangelicalism. In 1958 J I Packer was able to write, in ‘Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God, that Evangelicals reject

the supposition that Scripture errs, for the Scripture claims not to err. They reject all methods of biblical criticism which assume about Scripture something other than Scripture assumes about itself. They reject all approaches to Scripture which would not permit it to function in the Church as a final authority.

The situation was obviously changing when, in 1978, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy was produced at a Conference of prominent Evangelicals who were concerned at the departure from this position which they observed to be taking place within Evangelicalism. Perhaps I can quote from this Statement to demonstrate the common position of these men, whether they were Calvinistic or Arminian. Their basic position was that ‘the whole of Scripture and all its parts, down to the very words of the original, were given by divine inspiration’. They argued ‘that inspiration, though not conferring omniscience, guaranteed true and trustworthy utterance on all matters of which the biblical authors were moved to speak and write’. They denied ‘that the finitude or fallenness of these writers, by necessity or otherwise, introduced distortion or falsehood into God’s Word’. They affirmed ‘that Scripture, having been given by divine inspiration, is infallible, so that, far from misleading us, it is true and reliable in all the matters it addresses’. They denied ‘that biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science’.

This position has been challenged in recent times by men professing to believe in the reality of divine revelation, the inspiration and infallibility of the Word of God, and the evangelical doctrines derived from the Word of God. The advocate of infallibility without inerrancy nearest home has been Dr A T B McGowan in his 2007 book, The Divine Spiration of Scripture: Challenging evangelical perspectives. Dr McGowan regards Scripture as infallible ‘not in the sense of inerrant autographa1 but in the sense that God has given us the Scriptures and they will infallibly achieve God’s purpose in giving them’ (p 149). He regards the inerrancy of the original Scriptures as a modern, rather rationalistic, reaction to liberalism.

We shall attempt to summarise: (1) The orthodox view which we hold, and then go on to look at (2) The alternative positions being advocated in some professedly Evangelical circles; (3) The echoes we can hear of the downgrade movement which destroyed the orthodoxy of the old Free Church; (4) The fundamental significance of biblical inerrancy for the whole position of biblical Christianity; (5) The basis on which we are to defend what we believe to be the biblical, orthodox position.

1. The orthodox view of biblical inerrancy

We call it the orthodox view primarily because it is the Bible’s own view. It has been the view of those throughout the ages who have held biblical views of the Bible, such as Irenaeus, Augustine, Calvin, the Scottish Reformers, the Westminster divines and the theological teachers of the Disruption Free Church.

E J Young (in Thy Word is Truth) defines ‘inerrancy’ as meaning ‘that the Scriptures possess the quality of freedom from error. They are exempt from the liability of mistake, incapable of error. In all their teachings they are in perfect accord with the truth.’ This freedom from error does not only characterise the doctrine or theological matter of the Bible but all its statements on any subject and the words in which these statements are made. ‘All scripture is given by inspiration of God’ (2 Tim. 3:16). ‘For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost’ (2 Pet. 1:21). Although the Bible came to us through human instrumentality and although the distinctive human personalities and characteristics of the writers are evident, divine inspiration preserved them from making erroneous statements on any subject and ensured that they spoke or wrote the words of God, which can only be true.

Inspiration is God’s method of ensuring that those to whom he revealed himself and the mystery of his saving purpose would communicate that revelation precisely as God wished it to be communicated. God took steps to ensure that, not only were his revealed thoughts conveyed to us in a generally-accurate way, but in words which precisely communicated what was in his mind. God moved the writers, carried them along, in such a way that the words which they used give the precise record of the revelation which God intended. God did not merely give them the thoughts, he gave them also the words which would convey these God-given thoughts in the best possible way so that, when we read their words, we are reading the very words of God. All of Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, in its words as well as in its thoughts, is the product of a supernatural work of God which ensures that it is inerrant, infallible, wholly trustworthy.

The Bible was written by men, not by machines. But the men, their circumstances, characteristics, experiences and faculties were prepared by God, and God took these men whom he had prepared and carried them along supernaturally so that they wrote exactly what he intended them to write. It was their writing, but it was God’s words that were written. God the Holy Spirit brought directly to bear on the writers of Scripture a divine influence which ensured that, as long as they thought and spoke and wrote under this influence, all their statements accurately conveyed what God revealed to them of his mind, so that we have the thoughts of God infallibly communicated to us in the words of God as well as in the words of men. Inspiration preserved the writers from error which would be natural to them as sinful men, and guided them in their expression of thoughts and use of words, so that what they wrote is God’s own Word.

That the Scriptures are free from error is implicit in the doctrine of their divine inspiration. And it is essential to their infallibility and authority. As Dr Packer puts it:

Scripture is termed infallible and inerrant to express the conviction that all its teaching is the utterance of God ‘who cannot lie’, whose word, once spoken, abides for ever, and that therefore may be trusted implicitly. This is just the conviction which our Lord was expressing when he said: ‘The Scripture cannot be broken’ and ‘it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail’. God’s Word is affirmed to be infallible because God himself is infallible; the infallibility of Scripture is simply the infallibility of God speaking. What Scripture says is to be received as the infallible Word of the infallible God, and to assert biblical inerrancy and infallibility is just to confess faith in (i) the divine origin of the Bible and (ii) the truthfulness and trustworthiness of God. The value of these terms is that they conserve the principle of biblical authority; for statements that are not absolutely true and reliable could not be absolutely authoritative.

We believe that there is nothing in the limitations of human language or of human writers of Scripture to justify the claim that there are errors in the Bible. We believe that there are no real discrepancies or contradictions or deviations from truth in anything written in the Bible. This, of course, applies to the Scriptures as they were originally written. Even if we have no access to these original manuscripts now, their inerrancy is a matter of great significance. Error in the autographs would undermine Scripture’s doctrine of God and doctrine of inspiration and make man the judge of what, if anything, should be regarded as authoritative in the Scriptures. Their inerrancy is a matter of great significance also because we believe that we have in the copies of manuscripts and in our translation of the Bible access to those Scriptures which God ‘immediately inspired’ and has ‘by his singular care and providence kept pure in all ages’ (Westminster Confession of Faith, 1:8).

2. The alternative positions being advocated in some professedly Evangelical circles

G K Beale, who is due to become Professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary in 2010, has written a useful book entitled The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism: Responding to New Challenges to Biblical Authority (2008). In it he controverts the views of Peter Enns, who is described as a Reformed Evangelical Christian and biblical scholar, and who had been teaching Old Testament for about 15 years at Westminster before he was suspended from his post in 2008.

According to Beale, Enns ‘is trying to produce a synthesis of the findings of mainline liberal scholarship and an Evangelical view of Scripture’. He says that the Old Testament contains myth, through which God accommodates himself to communicate truth. Enns appeals to the ‘incarnational notion, contending that since Christ was fully divine and fully human, then so is Scripture. Accordingly, we need to accept the “diversity” or “messiness” of Scripture, just as we accept all the aspects of Jesus’ humanity.’ He warns that ‘modern interpreters should not impose their modern views of history and scientific precision on the ancient text of the Bible. Such a foreign imposition results in seeing problems in the Bible that are really not there’.

Beale suggests that Enns’ overarching theme in his 2005 book,Inspiration and Incarnation, ‘is his conception of divine accommodation in the process of scriptural inspiration. For Enns, Scripture is very human, which means that God meets his people in a very human way in his Word.’ No wonder Beale says that he questions the viability of Enns’

attempt to hold to plenary inspiration while at the same time affirming that biblical writers unconsciously imbibed mythical stories and mistakenly thought that they corresponded to past historical reality . . . Enns says that though such accounts do not convey historical truth, they still have important theological truth to tell us: that we are to worship the God of the Bible and not pagan gods.

Beale also affirms that ‘Enns does not exempt Jesus from being just as culturally determined as are the apostles in their use of the Old Testament’ and he is troubled ‘by the implications of Enns’ conclusions, which leave us with a Bible written by inspired authors, who at significant points thought they were writing historical accounts but that, indeed, unbeknown to them, were really mythical’.

We are more familiar with Dr McGowan’s position as set out in The Divine Spiration of Scripture: Challenging evangelical perspectives (2007). In this book he sets out to ‘argue that, in formulating our doctrine of Scripture, we need to review both our vocabulary and our theology, in order to clarify precisely what we mean when we speak about Scripture as the Word of God’. Dr McGowan tells us that he does not ‘seriously question’ that the Bible is ‘the Word of God and that the voice of God speaking by his Spirit through his Word is the final authority on all matters’, but he has ‘gradually become concerned that some ways of defining and using Scripture within Evangelicalism are open to serious criticism and could do us more harm than good if we continue to maintain them in their present form’. He contends ‘that Evangelicals ought to abandon the word “inerrancy” and use language that is more biblically accurate and theologically constructive’.

Dr McGowan argues for the position of those Evangelicals who maintain

that ‘inerrancy’ is not a biblical word, that it is not required by any of the confessions of faith stemming from the Reformation and that it is of relatively recent origin, without the weight of church history behind it. They would also argue that it is mistaken theologically.

Although they ‘are unhappy with the term “inerrancy”‘, they ‘also reject the notion of “errancy”, believing that they are being presented with a false dichotomy’.2

What is most alarming about the position adopted by Dr McGowan is that he is not content to allege errant manuscripts and translations but regards it as unjustified and unprofitable to invest so much time and theological capital in maintaining the inerrancy of what he calls ‘hypothetical’ original documents which we do not possess. Dr McGowan states his view thus:

The basic error of the inerrantists is to insist that the inerrancy of the autographa is a direct implication of the biblical doctrine of inspiration (or divine spiration). In order to defend this implication, the inerrantists make an unwarrantable assumption about God. The assumption is that, given the nature and character of God, the only kind of Scripture he could ‘breathe out’ was Scripture that is textually inerrant. If there was even one mistake in the autographa then God cannot have been the author because he is incapable of error.

He denies that inerrancy is a legitimate implication of inspiration. He describes the assumption that it is legitimate as unbiblical and rationalist. He alleges that it

underestimates God and undermines the human authors . . . It assumes that God can only act in a way that conforms to our expectations, based on our human assessment of his character. It assumes that whatever God does must conform to the canons of human reason.

Dr McGowan says that, having chosen

to use human beings rather than the more direct approach (eg writing the words supernaturally on stone without human involvement, as with the Ten Commandments), God did not overrule their humanity. This explains, for example, the discrepancies between the Gospels. Nevertheless, this is not a problem because God, by his Holy Spirit, has ensured that the Scriptures in their final canonical form are as he intended them to be and hence is able to use them to achieve his purpose . . . The Scriptures are human documents, written by human beings, with all this entails.

At the same time, however, these documents were ‘breathed out’ by God. We must hold these truths in tandem, not emphasising one over against the other . . . It is surely not necessary to invest them with divine qualities in order that they should fulfil their God-given purposes. Just as God uses preachers, sacraments and other instruments, so he uses Scriptures . . . He did not give us an inerrant autographical text, because he did not intend to do so. He gave us a text that reflects the humanity of its authors but that, at the same time, clearly evidences its origin in the divine speaking. Through the instrumentality of the Holy Spirit, God is perfectly able to use these Scriptures to accomplish his purposes . . . I am arguing that Scripture is as God intended it to be, in his gracious providential overruling, but reject the implication that thereby the autographa must be inerrant.

Evangelical critics of inerrancy who do not wish to say that there are errors in the Bible and who hide behind the postmodern concept that what might seem error to us was truth to them, because they operated in a different culture, have no hesitation in regarding as mythological the biblical account of Creation and much of the historical material of the Old Testament. That there should be discrepancies and contradictions between different biblical accounts of the same incident would not cause them concern. Some find no problem in the notion that our Lord Jesus Christ himself as a man was conditioned by his environment to believe things that were not accurate, such as Isaiah’s authorship of the whole book that bears his name.

G K Beale is of the view that ‘at least two things have contributed significantly’ to this development.

First, the onset of postmodernism in Evangelicalism has caused less confidence in the propositional claims of the Bible, since such claims have been understood only by fallible human interpreters. This influence has also resulted in an attempt to downplay the propositional nature of Scripture itself and to overemphasise the relational aspect of biblical revelation, that is, Scripture is not some dry set of impersonal propositions but a living communication from God himself, whom we meet in Scripture. For this reason, Karl Barth’s relational view of Scripture has seen a revival of interest . . .

A second factor leading to reassessment of the traditional Evangelical view of the Bible’s inspiration is that over the last twenty-five years there has been an increasing number of conservative students graduating with doctorates in biblical studies from non-Evangelical institutions. A significant percentage of these graduates have assimilated to one degree or another non-Evangelical perspectives, especially with regard to higher-critical views of the authorship, dating and historical claims of the Bible, which have contributed to their discomfort with the traditional Evangelical perspective of the Bible. On the other hand, these same scholars, while significantly qualifying their former view of inerrancy, have not left their basic position about the truth of the gospel and the Bible’s basic authority. Thus, they continue to want to consider themselves ‘Evangelical’ but at the same time reformers of an antiquated Evangelicalism, represented, for example, by the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy.


  1. The autographs, the original manuscripts
  2. In passing we might note that the rather strange, and one would say deceptive, position that the Bible is neither ‘inerrant’ nor ‘errant’ is explained by the idea that ‘what we would call “errors” in the Bible, by our modern definition of error, would not have been viewed as errors by the ancient biblical writers and readers. Consequently, what is not true for us was true for them.’ Beale, who gives this explanation of the position he is arguing against, comments that this is ‘a postmodern view of truth and falsehood . . . This view really understands that to a significant extent truth is relative.’

Taken with permission from the January and February 2011 editions of The Free Presbyterian Magazine.

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