The evangelical debate on this issue has been called the infallibility vs. inerrancy debate.1
A short description of the "infallibility" as opposed to the "inerrancy" view of inspiration can be seen in Daniel Fuller's statement,
Scripture as a whole is revelatory, either directly revelatory or facilitating the revelation. The directly revelatory part concerns the main purpose of the Scripture (to make man wise unto salvation) and is inerrant. The facilitating parts are not inerrant and are important only as a framing for the revelatory parts - therefore, they should not be made to harmonize with science and history.2
This view is put forward in response to attacks on scientific and historical portions of the Bible. It is argued by some, that if only the "spiritual" parts are inspired, then the scientific and historical parts (which are most often questioned) do not need to be defended in order to maintain the inspiration of Scripture.
Unfortunately, while such a view makes Scripture unrefutable, but it also makes it unverifiable, and open to the accusation that it contains only "subjective truth."3 The partial inerrancy position has been compared to the assertion that, "UFO's exist, but they only appear when no one is around". While this example is somewhat disanalogous, it does serve to illustrate the fact that a position that cannot be falsified, is not open to rational discussion. Stated differently, if the Bible is shown to be false in those areas that can be checked on, why should it be believed in the areas that cannot be checked on (i.e. the spiritual parts)?4
Partial Inerrantist Arguments
Intentionalist vs. Correspondence Theories of Truth
The infallibility view argues that the Bible's view of truth is "intentionalist" rather than "correspondence." This means a statement is true if it accomplishes its intended purpose, even if some of its factual assertions do not correspond to reality.
I would argue on the contrary, that the Bible's view of truth is the correspondence view.5 When the biblical authors do adopt an intentionalist approach, they indicate that they are speaking in a parable by using appropriate parabolic language. It is unlikely that unannounced parables are present in the text.
Another argument put forward by partial inerrantists is that the verbal plenary view of inspiration is not the historical view of the church. They claim the so-called verbal plenary view (or total inerrancy view) was the formulation of rationalistic Western thinking of late 19th century Fundamentalist theologians (Hodge, Warfield, & friends) and therefore should not be equated with orthodoxy.
Here we need to see that the more important issue is whether Jesus believed in verbal plenary inspiration, and (secondarily) whether the authors of Scripture believed in it. The answer to these questions are affirmative.6 The view held by various periods of church history is of academic interest, but does not provide an adequate basis for faith. It is too easy to demonstrate error in the thinking of the church in history.
Another argument advanced by the partial inerrantists is that Jesus accommodated Himself to the 1st century Jewish view of inspiration, even though He did not personally believe in it.
This argument does not seem to be supportable. Jesus did not hesitate to differ with Jewish beliefs that were wrong. We can quickly see in the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus went directly after false beliefs of the day. Another striking example is the confrontation with the clergy in Mt. 23. Why would Jesus become squeamish at the point of Biblical inerrancy? It would be difficult to claim that it is an unimportant issue.7 Further, Jesus seems to go out of his way to affirm this teaching (which he supposedly knew was false, according to partial inerrantists). It seems impossible to draw any conclusion under the accommodation view other than that Jesus was lying. How many other false doctrines were ringingly affirmed by Christ for the sake of diplomacy?
Actual Apparent Errors
There are a few obvious historical and scientific errors in the Bible.8 We do not have room for a detailed response here. However, these can be answered by seeing that the errors could be actually:
- not errors at all (Mark 10:45; Luke 18:35)
- copyist errors (2 Chronicles 22:2 is copyist error, see 2 Chron 21:20; see also 2 Kings 8:26 for the correct age)
- a current lack of data, which, when corrected, will answer the problem just as it did in the case of Daniel 5:31.
Apparent Borrowing From Other Texts
A final argument used against inerrancy is that parallels with pagan myth suggest borrowing or common sources. Again, without attempting to answer in detail, these parallels to myth may be explained in six other possible ways.
- There may have been a common memory such as the case of the world flood.
- The authenticity of many of the claimed parallels is debatable, as in the case of Gen. 1 and Enuma Elish.
- The parallels may have been deliberate for the sake of communication and relevance. (Deuteronomy compared to 2nd millennia BC Hittite Suzerainty Treaties).
- There may have been deliberate copying for sake of polemicizing (Psalm 74:12-14; Psalm 93).
- There may have been borrowing because the statements borrowed were true (Proverbs).
- Pagan sources may have borrowed from the Bible
These are the main directions we could go in defending the notion of inerrancy against accusations. We are left with the objections that I would raise against the partial view.
Why Reject Partial Inerrancy?
History vs. Theology?
In the first place, theology and history in Scripture cannot be meaningfully separated. History is often revelatory (for instance, the Exodus, the creation, the resurrection of Christ, etc.).
Another question that must be raised is, "Who determines which historical events are revelatory and which ones are not?" Isn't the partial inerrantist simply transferring to himself the very inerrancy that he denies to the Scriptures?
The Character of God
The partial view raises serious questions regarding the power and character of God. When God fails to communicate in both history and theology without error, is it because He is unable, or because He is unwilling? In either event, it seems that we have a problem. A God unwilling to avoid error would be dishonest. A God unable to avoid error would be impotent.
If the apostles can't be trusted to give accurate information about secular areas, why should they be trusted in "spiritual" areas?9
Jesus made no distinction between the historical and revelatory parts of the Old Testament in His quotation of it. He also quotes from Genesis 1-11 over 80 times.10
The purpose of the Bible is "to make man wise unto salvation" and it is not a scientific or historical textbook. But it is also truthful in all areas that it affirms.
Thus I think that if we admit that there is sufficient warrant for believing that the Bible is inspired, then that definition of inspiration should be understood to include total verbal inerrancy.
1. It has also been called the partial inerrancy vs. total inerrancy debate.
2. Montgomery, John Warwick, God's Inerrant Word, p.24, (Bethany Fellowship Inc., Minneapolis, Minn.,1973) quoting Daniel P. Fuller's article "The Nature Of Biblical Inerrancy," in the American Scientific Affiliation Journal. XXIV/2 (June 1972) p.50.
3. In other words, truth that may not correspond to the real world, and/or is not subject to the laws of reason.
4. The infallibility position would argue that the inerrantist's appeal to the autographs is subject to the same criticism. However, there is a difference, because the claim that an accurate standard used to exist is quite different from the position that there has never been such a standard. The original existence of an inerrant text bears heavily on the whole theology of revelation including the reliability of the imperfect texts that we now have. See Harris's illustration of the stolen yard bar. Harris, R. Laird, The Inspiration and Canonicity of the Bible, (Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI 1957,1969) pp.88,89
5. See Exodus 20:16; John 8:44 with reference to Genesis 3:4; 2:17; Acts 5:1-4; Genesis 42:16; 1 Kings 22:16-22; Psalm 119:163; John 5:33; Acts 24:8,11; Leviticus 4:2,27.
6. See a short outline including Jesus' teachings on inspiration in Verbal Plenary Inspiration, by Dennis McCallum and Gary DeLashmutt.
7. The authors of Scripture are unambiguous in their claims to inspiration. These claims, if not true, would discredit completely any other claims they made. Old Testament Authors: Joshua 1:8; 22:5; 2 Samuel 23:2; Hebrews 9:3,30; Nehemiah 10:29 New Testament Authors: 1 Corinthians 14:37; 2 Peter 3:2; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Revelation 1:3; Revelation 22:18,19; 1 Timothy 5:18; 1 Thessalonians 2:13,15; 2 Peter 3:15,16; Galatians 1:11-12; John 21:24; 2 Timothy 3:16
8. For instance, 2 Kings 8:26 compared to 2 Chronicles 22:2.
9. This is exactly Paul's question in 1 Corinthians 15:15. Although the resurrection was a historical event, Paul felt that inaccuracy in that area discredited all of his testimony in other areas.
10. He made no distinction between the historicity of the first eleven chapters and the other chapters in Genesis. See Matthew 19:4,6; 24:38; Luke 17:32; 11:30 for examples.