In recent posts, we’ve worked through terms related to special revelation: canon, inspiration, and manuscripts. These terms relate to the all important subject of inerrancy.
Inerrancy is the doctrine that the Bible in its original autographs is without error. Inerrancy is a logical doctrine that flows from the doctrine of inspiration. If God is the Author of Scripture (albeit through human writers), then the original writings must be without error. God is incapable of flaw or falsity (Hebrews 6:18). If the Scriptures are authored by God, then they are inerrant and infallible (not capable of being wrong).
It is important to recognize, that those who hold the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture do so with regard to the original autographs. Copyists and translators may have made mistakes in translations. One blatant example is the 1631 reprint of the King James Bible where the all important negative not was committed from the sixth of the ten commandments reading “Thou shalt commit adultery,” as opposed to “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” The previous posts on the canon and manuscripts detail that while a copy and translation may not be inerrant, they do clearly affirm the Biblical intentions from the original autographs. We can trust the Bible we do have.
As early as the fourth century, Augustine reflected on the importance of inerrancy.
For it seems to me that most disastrous consequence must follow upon our believing that anything false is found in the sacred books: that is to say, that the men by whom Scripture has been given to us, and committed to writing, did put down in these books anything false… For if you once admit into such a high sanctuary of authority one false statement as made in the way of duty, there will not be left a single sentence of those books which, if appearing to any one difficult in practice or hard to believe, may not by the same fatal rule be explained away, as a statement in which, intentionally, and under a sense of duty, the author declared what was not true.
Augustine, Letter 28 quoted by Robert Letham in Systematic Theology, 191.
Augustine is absolutely correct. When one comes to the Scripture believing it can be in error, then the interpreter stands in judgment of Scripture. Potential errors will arise in biblical texts where the teaching of the Bible runs contrary to cultural and social norms.
To use a contemporary example of the importance of inerrancy, the Southern Baptist Convention turned back theological liberalism in its seminaries and entities using the dividing line of inerrancy.
Theological liberalism of the 18th century arose as an attempt to explain away the supernaturalism found in Scripture. Authority and truth post-Enlightenment came from what could be ascertained with historical or scientific certainty. The supernatural claims of Scripture (creation, miracles, Jesus’ resurrection), could not be verified by science or history. So many secular philosophers simply denied them outright. The theological liberalism that rose post-Enlightenment attempted to remake Christianity into religious system that could coexist without its supernatural claims. One way that liberalism attempted this move was to use textual, literary, and source criticism to explain away the supernatural claims of Scripture (particularly the Gospels and miracles of Jesus). Theological liberalism could not do this without rejecting the doctrine of inerrancy. This type of theological liberalism spread through Europe and then the United States in seminaries and universities. By the middle of the twentieth century, the six Southern Baptist Seminaries had some faculty members that were teaching from a theologically liberal point of view.
While there are other contrasting perspectives, the baseline for theological liberalism is inerrancy. The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. Denominational leaders recognized the trend toward theological liberalism at the seminaries and moved to secure leadership that held inerrancy. Known as the conservative resurgence, it is one of the only examples of a denomination turning back theological liberalism.
As an aside, the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting will occur next week (June 15-16, 2021 in Nashville, TN). Divisions and debates still exist in SBC life. Some claim that the convention is returning to liberalism. I don’t believe that to be true. By and large, we are theologically conservative and believe the Bible to be inerrant. Our divides and divisions result from interpretive nuances and power struggles. If you are interested in reading more about the current divisions, Trevin Wax has written an insightful piece at the Gospel Coalition blog entitled, “What are Southern Baptists Really Fighting About?”
One of my mentors and heroes, Dr. Kenneth Ridings used to say, “I believe in the Bible from Genesis to maps.” His point was that if the Bible is not God’s inerrant Word, then it can be rejected and reinvented. If the Bible is God’s inerrant Word, and God is the Author, then we must submit to it.
I believe in the doctrine of inerrancy. I have staked my ministry on the authority of God’s Word. If you believe the Bible is God’s inerrant Word, then accepting it and obeying it are not up for debate. While it is appropriate to work through differences of interpretation (we’ll get there in these posts), we do so in a spirit of humility.
If we lose the doctrine of inerrancy, we will eventually lose the importance and simplicity of gospel truths:
Jesus loves me,
Yes I know,
For the Bible tells me so.
If we are not certain that God is the author of Scripture, and we believe the Bible is in error, how can we be certain about the truths we desperately need from Scripture?
Jesus loves me. This I do know. And I know it because God’s inerrant and infallible Word tells me so.
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash