Why Inerrancy Matters
Posted by Joseph Torres
Several notable theologians (not least N. T. Wright) claim that that biblical inerrancy is a peculiarly American doctrine. Some believe that a focus on inerrancy, as opposed to biblical infallibility (which I’ve addressed here), attracts skeptics and religious naysayers to search for ways to undermine the accuracy of the Bible. Perhaps there’s some truth to this last claim. It does make sense after all. The claim that one, and only one, collection of religious writings reflect the personal disclosure of a speaking God (and, moreover, that this collection of documents is error-free) is bound to tick off not a few champions of “tolerance.” But surely we shouldn’t shrug our shoulders at every doctrine non-Christians find unacceptable.
But why do American evangelicals spend so much time affirming inerrancy? Why would any Christian affirm inerrancy? And does biblical authority reduce to inerrancy? For some the answer is yes, but I think that’s reductionistic. Biblical authority flows the quality of Scripture as God-breathed. Since it is the Word of God written it therefore demands a response to its speech acts. This means Scripture demands a response to everything it says in all the ways it says it. Biblical authority entails we answer Scripture’s questions, laugh at its jokes, tremble at its threats, rejoice in its promises, and do as it commands. Authority cannot be reduced to an affirmation of inerrancy. Inerrancy is related to one aspect of biblical activity, stating propositions and making assertions. A robust doctrine of biblical authority teaches us to believe the Bible’s claims just as it teaches us to trust God’s promises.
Now if this is correct, and biblical authority is a larger and more robust concept than simple inerrancy, why make such a big deal over it? Ask yourself that question. Why place such a heavy emphasis on the Bible’s propositions rather than the its promises, threats, songs, or commands? The answer is straightforward:
If the propositions affirmed as true in the Bible are in fact false, all other biblical speech acts have no extra-textual importance.
Extra-textual importance, a fancy phrase for a crucial concept. Elsewhere I’ve defined the doctrine of inerrancy like this: When all the relevant facts are known, and when properly interpreted, Scripture never contradicts itself, not does it misrepresent the facts. Now theoretically, the Bible could be internally consistent (no book or statement contradicts another book or statement) and yet not be inerrant. Why? Because the narrative of the Bible (while internally harmonious, and literarily masterful) may not in fact make true statements of the extra-textual world, the world outside the text. Consider the amazing precision and harmony of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The Bible would make for great literature, but a poor foundation for Spirit-empowered obedience and development.
If the propositions of Scripture aren’t true there’s no comfort found in it’s promises. If the propositions of Scripture aren’t true there’s no reason to fear the Bible’s threats. If the propositions of Scripture aren’t true there’s no urgency to answers its demands.
Without affirming the truth of Scripture, all is lost, and their is little difference between our love and admiration for the Bible and that of Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Biblical authority incorporates more than inerrancy, but not less.
Here’s a fuller discussion on the topic from D. A. Carson: