Ask Steve: The Doctrine of Inerrancy



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Contagious Disciple Making: Leading Others on a Journey of Discovery

by David L. Watson & Paul D. Watson

Category: Christian Life / Ministry

2015, Thomas Nelson




Question: Steve, can you explain to me the doctrine of inerrancy? Summarize historic and contemporary challenges to this doctrine. What implications does this doctrine have for pastoral ministry?

Answer: The doctrine of inerrancy is one of the most important teachings that a Christian and the church can hold to. It is the foundation for understanding every major (and even minor) doctrine of the Christian faith. It affirms the truth of who God is – impeccably sovereign, true, and faithful. Without believing in the essence of inerrancy, we are left with doubt concerning the truthfulness of God’s revelation and the power of His sovereign preserving of His word. Without inerrancy, there is nothing really to define what the gospel is and whether it can be trusted or not.

Inerrancy is the simple and timeless fact that Scripture contains nothing that is contrary to reality. It is without error in not only the facts concerning salvation and Christian living, but also historical, scientific, prophetic, and geographical details. It must be clarified that inerrancy of Scripture applies exclusively to the autographa (original manuscripts), and not the subsequent manuscripts, translations, or commentaries that have come from it. The inspiration of Scripture only applies to those works which were penned by the original authors (moved by the Holy Spirit), and not to the works of the manuscript copyists or translators. However, this does not mean that the Bible we have today is hopelessly full of error or is untrustworthy. Through the science of textual criticism (the practice of reconciling textual variants in ancient manuscripts), we have come to recover approximately 99.5% of the autographa.

Picture 1This roughly 0.5 percent of the Bible difficulties – often called technical scribal errors – do not in any way influence the major – or even sub-major – doctrines of the Christian faith, such as the meaning of the gospel, God’s eternal attributes, the essence of Christian living, etc. Even if the 0.5 percent of the scribal discrepancies did not exist, it would not have any noticeable impact on the Bible that we have today. It would not have changed the course of Christianity or given greater power to the gospel, Christian living, and church growth. This reality attests to the faithful hand of God to preserve His word throughout history so it can accomplish its purposes, which is convicting the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment (Jn 16:8). Therefore, the church can have confidence that even though the physical autographa is not with us today, the contents of that autographa is essentially recovered and available worldwide in our Bible.

Many verses in the Bible demonstrate the truth of inerrancy. 2 Timothy 3:16 says, “All Scripture is inspired [God-breathed] and profitable for teaching, for reproof, rebuke, and training in righteousness.” This passage not only demonstrates the infallibility and authority of Scripture, but also its total truthfulness, because of the Agent of truth who inspired it. Jesus affirms in 17:17, “Sanctify them in Your truth; Your word is truth.” Psalm 119:160 states, “The sum of Your word is truth, and every one of Your righteous ordinances is everlasting.” Last, but not least, 2 Peter 1:20 declares, “But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”

Picture 2The inerrancy of Scripture, as established in such verses like 2 Timothy 3:16, encompasses many truths concerning the Bible. Because the Scripture are without error, it implies that the Bible is authoritative in all areas. That means every principle in the Bible has authority over a person’s life; there is no such thing as picking and choosing what is true or what to follow. Because Scriptures are without error, it is sufficient in all areas. It is complete and enough to guide a sinner to eternal salvation and effective worshipful living before God. Because Scriptures are without error, it is infallible in all areas. It will accomplish its salvific and sanctifying purposes in the church throughout history. Because Scriptures are without error, it is clear in all areas. It speaks on all major matters in a manner that is comprehensible to every man on the planet so they can understand the truth of Scripture and obey it.

The doctrine of inerrancy has had many challenges throughout history, therefore it has major implications on pastoral ministry. There are quite a number of people who do not believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, even within evangelicalism. It is a problem amongst many Christians and churches. It’s even an issue with many liberal seminaries (like Princeton and Fuller). Even if professing believers hold to inerrancy (for the sake of appearing orthodox or reverential to God’s character), their definition of “inerrancy” is completely misleading because of how they redefine or twist the meaning and intent of Scripture. By reinterpreting sections such as the 7-Day creation account (into theistic evolution), Jonah and the big fish (into a parable), and even the gospel message (into social or dominion theology), the so-called inerrantist defies the Bible’s clear teaching on perspicuity (Ps 19:7; 119:160) and indirectly pronounces Scripture to be in error. This does not mean that all Christians who deny inerrancy are heretics and apostates. Yet a word of caution should be applied here. The degree to which “Christians” deny the inerrancy of Scripture, and teach aberrant doctrine, can very well reveal the true condition of his heart and salvation. As Matthew 7:16-20 says, “You will know them by their fruit…”

A denial of inerrancy has major effects on pastoral ministry and church. For one, it causes elders and laypeople to be distrustful of the Bible. They will not have as much faith in the authority, truthfulness, and sufficiency of Scripture as they should, which is exactly what Satan and the secular world want. Some errantists believe that the Bible is only infallible when it comes to teachings on salvation and Christian living (e.g. faith and practice), but not on technical details of science or prophecy. If that is true, what does this really say about God’s truthful nature? What does it imply about His sovereign power to guide men’s writings or preserve His word? This idea of a “canon within a canon” just does not correlate to the Bible’s clear teaching regarding the integrity of His written revelation.

Picture 3Denying inerrancy opens the floodgates to many possible dangers. Because the Bible is not completely true in all areas, who is to say what is true and what is false? Who is even to believe that the Bible’s teaching on salvation and Christian living are true and timelessly binding? Who is to say that we cannot lie or be negligent on small matters as well? The problem with those who oppose biblical inerrancy, especially by historical critical scholars, is that they elevate academic scholarship, feelings, and novelties over the Lordship of Christ. Instead of humbly submitting to Christ’s lordship, these Christians believe themselves to be above God’s word, which is why they cannot accept it for what it says. The word of God is only meant to be understood through the normal, clear, and (at times) literal sense of the language, which precludes the idea that the words of the Bible are esoteric and known only to the readers or audiences of their time. Otherwise, it cannot be a light or a tool to make the simple wise (Ps 119:160).

It is important to hold to the doctrine of inerrancy, especially when pastoring in churches. Without it, expository preaching is in vain (since much of it is either not true or not applicable to us). Trust in God’s faithfulness is shaky. Futile speculations and theories about the possible meaning of Scripture leads to doubt and lack of conviction, which is a slope that eventually turns to liberalism, agnosticism, and atheism.