The error of inerrancy

Some of you may have been following the postings by Chris Tilling on Biblical inerrancy here and here. Not wanting to leave this debate entirely in the hands of the biblical commentators, and wanting to say something in response, I wish here to offer a (not the only, nor indeed a particularly full) theological perspective on this vitally important question. ‘I do not believe in verbal inspiration. I am with the critics, in principle. But the true minister ought to find the words and phrases of the Bible so full of spiritual food and felicity that he has some difficulty in not believing in verbal inspiration. The Bible is the one enchiridion of the preacher still, the one manual of eternal life, the one page that glows as all life grows dark, and the one book whose wealth rebukes us more the older we grow because we knew and loved it so late’ (Preaching, 26). So said PT Forsyth to his American audience in his Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind. It seems to me the debate concerning infallibility is at core one about the nature and object of authority and where that authority for faith and life is to be found.

Notwithstanding the debates about terminology used, to my mind it is of great concern that people of faith should consider the ground of their faith a book, rather than in what that book testifies to. In some schools, this amounts to no less than bibliolatry. The Bible is not the Koran! An infallible book implies that our primary need is revelation, and that contained and conveyed in words. Whereas our greatest need is not intellectual but moral, not truth but grace, not revelation but redemption. I, for one, do not see a necessity for belief in the inerrancy of the Scriptures but, with Forsyth, I believe it should be difficult for us to not believe in verbal inspiration. I believe in that which creates the Bible, i.e. the gospel to which the Scriptures perfectly bear witness. And I believe that we must believe in the Bible’s finality, authority and inspiration.

Donald Bloesch’s definition of inspiration is helpful here: ‘. . . inspiration is the divine election and superintendence of particular writers and writings in order to ensure a trustworthy and potent witness to the truth’ (Holy Scripture, 119). The authority of the Scriptures lies in the same place that the authority for life and the Church exists: in the gospel itself. What, then, is the authority in the church? The church itself? The ex cathedra statements? The magisterium? Existential experience? The authority is where it always has been, in the apostolic testimony to Christ. The authority is carried by the apostolic word, but that word itself is not the authority. What we have is the apostolic message as it has been committed to writing by the apostles, in what we know as the New Testament.

So the question remains, do we believe what the apostles taught or not? The fact that we learn shape of the gospel from the Bible does not make the Bible an infallible witness, but a completely faithful one. (As an aside, why is it that so many of those who trumpet the inerrancy of scripture from pulpits either fail to use the Bible in their preaching or misuse it so severely? A wise preacher once said to me that you can tell what one’s view of Scripture is not from what one says about them, but rather from how one uses them.) The Scriptures are the authority, for no other reason than they are the definitive testimony to Christ. That would not imply that there is no further communication from God to us, simply that in what is written we have the certain word. All else is to be tested against that (1 Thess. 5:20-22; 1 John 4:1). So, ‘nothing beyond what is written’ (1 Cor. 4:6); ‘To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them’ (Isa. 8:20).

As PT Forsyth put it: ‘Inspiration and Revelation are two very different things, and one mistake we have made has been to treat them as being co-extensive, if not identical. The first mistake, of course, was in applying such words to a book. It is said the Bible is a revelation from God, or the Bible is inspired. The statement is loose. The Bible contains God’s revelation (though in no dissectible way); what is the revelation is the Gospel, as some put it, or, as others would say, Christ, or the line of historic redemption. And, as to Inspiration, it is not, strictly speaking, the Bible that was inspired, but the souls of the men whose writings fill it. The more we dwell on this, the more we may feel what important consequences flow from the correction. The verbal, literal infallibility of Scripture goes down at once, for example, and with it so many of the doubts, or attacks, it has roused’ (Parnassus, 243).

And again: ‘”Who shall tell me surely what to believe about Christ?” None can. No Church can. No book can; no saint, no theologian. None can but Christ Himself in actual presence-it may be without a word that I could report, or a theme I could frame-by overwhelming my soul with its greatness and its evil, its judgment and its salvation, in His invincible word of death, resurrection, and glory’ (Authority, 63).

And again: ‘The inspiration is not infallible in the sense that every event is certain or every statement final. You may agree with what I say without agreeing with all I say. The Bible’s inspiration, and its infallibility, are such as pertain to redemption and not theology, to salvation and not mere history. It is as infallible as a Gospel requires, not as a system. Remember that Christ did not come to bring a Bible but to bring a Gospel. The Bible arose afterwards from the Gospel to serve the Gospel. We do not treat the Bible aright, we do not treat it with the respect it asks for itself, when we treat it as a theologian, but only when we treat it as an apostle, as a preacher, as the preacher in the perpetual pulpit of the Church. It is saturated with dogma, but its writers were not dogmatists; and it concerns a Church, but they were not ecclesiastics. The Bible, the preacher, and the Church are all made by the same thing-the Gospel. The Gospel was there before the Bible, and it created the Bible, as it creates the true preacher and the true sermon everywhere. And it is for the sake and service of the Gospel that both Bible and preacher exist. We are bound to use both, at any cost to tradition, in the way that gives freest course to the Gospel in which they arose. The Bible, therefore, is there as the medium of the Gospel. It was created by faith in the Gospel. And in turn it creates faith among men. It is at once the expression of faith and its source. It is a nation’s sermon to the race. It is the wonder-working relic of a saint-nation which was the living organ of living revelation. What made the inspiration of the book? It was the prior inspiration of the people and of the men by the revelation. Revelation does not consist of communications about God. It never did. If it had it might have come by an inspired book dictated to one in a dream. But revelation is the self-bestowal of the living God, His self-limitation in the interest of grace. It is the living God in the act of imparting Himself to living souls. It is God Himself drawing ever more near and arrived at last. And a living God can only come to men by living men. Inspiration is the state of a soul, not of a book-of a book only in so far as the book is a transcript of a soul inspired. It was by men that God gave Himself to men, till, in the fullness of time, He came, for good and all, in the God-man Christ, the living Word; in whom God was present, reconciling the world unto Himself, not merely acting through Him but present in Him, reconciling and not speaking of reconciliation, or merely offering it to us.’ (Preaching, 9-11).

I remember once attending a packed wee (that means ‘little’ for those non-Scots) church to hear a preacher. I was at the back and could not see him, so I created a stack of Bible’s to stand on, that I might better see the preacher and hear the Word. I remember being told off for engaging in such ‘disrespectful’ activity. I complied, more out of embarrassment than anything else, but over the years I have reflected on what was happening here and the message that was given to me as a young Christian. They are many of course. But what was my reproofer saying about the Bible? Was it simply that I should respect it, and the church’s property? Or was it more? I’ve often wondered if the reaction would have been the same had I stood on a stack of hymnbooks. I’m afraid that in some places this may be even considered the ‘greater sin’. I know that standing on the word enabled me to hear the Word more clearly.

Finally, I love the Scriptures… all of them. I was converted reading the Scriptures. Sometimes I feel that I am reconverted when I read them. In them is where I discover their God-breathed nature and so their profit for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that people may be competent, equipped for every good work.’ And for that I thank the Lord for the Scriptures. I have devoted my life to their study. With the psalmist, I say ‘Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day and night’ (119:97). I love the Scriptures for in them is where I find life, where I hear the word of Christ in such a way that I cannot argue back. In this sense, they are final. Although more than happy to be convinced otherwise, why this requires, or even demands, a belief in inerrancy remains a mystery to me. Luther once said, ‘Christ is the Master; the Scriptures are only the servant. The true way to test all the Books is to see whether they work the will of Christ or not. No Book which does not preach Christ can be apostolic, though Peter or Paul were its author. And no Book which does preach Christ can fail to be apostolic though Judas, Ananias, Pilate or Herod were its author’ and that ‘The Bible is the cradle wherein Christ is laid.’ Not bad for a guy who (wrongly) called James an ‘epistle of straw!’ (NB. For those who wish to throw stones, or cans of fruit, may they please be well polished and, if fruit, I like peaches.)

11 thoughts on “The error of inerrancy

  1. Great post, but difficult to read. Could you please break long posts like this up into paragraphs? Thanks.

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  2. No probs… glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for the tip too. By the way, why the anonymous post?

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  3. Thanks for that post Jason, I really enjoyed it. It’s good to have some good reflection on inerrancy from a theological viewpoint as you and Chris have done rather than someone just hurling prooftexts around :)

    Am thoroughly enjoying your blog :)

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  4. Christ created the Church and the Church answered first with the Bible, when faith was pure and positive, nd then with the creeds, when it had lost in a refined secularity the glow of its first love. But Christianity is not a book religion. It has a book, but the book is not the Revelation. It does not event contain the Revelation any more than the reflecting telesope contains the heavens. It is the echo of the Revelation repeated, and, in a sense, even enhanced mong the hills and valleys of the redeemed inspired soul. All questions of a book as revelation ought to cease when we recall that the Revelation Himself never wrote a word, never ordered a word to be written, and apparently never contemplated any Bible more extended than the scriputres He Himself had used.

    Faith and Criticism.

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