What Biblical Inerrancy Is…and Isn’t

What is the Bible? Is it God’s own trustworthy revelation of truth?  Or is it something else?  Perhaps a valuable but corrupted history or collection of writings that hide gems of insight in the mud of another era’s biases and shortcomings? The answer to that question will go a long way in determining how we approach the Bible and what role it ultimately plays in our lives. 

The contrasting answers just mentioned (we could add others) point to a controversy that’s been in full swing since the Enlightenment, often even within the big tent of confessing Christians.  Just in the last several weeks, I’ve run across various articles, blog posts, or books in which the nature of the Bible’s witness is a central issue. 

With that in mind, I thought I’d point to a document that many evangelicals and other theologically like-minded persons have relied upon to articulate a view of biblical inerrancy, i.e., the doctrine that “Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact” (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology).  The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, drafted in 1978, remains a reliable, nuanced expression of what inerrancy is…and also what it isn’t. 

Following a short preface, the Statement contains a short, five point-summary, including the three listed below:

2. Holy Scripture, being God’s own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches: it is to be believed, as God’s instruction, in all that it affirms, obeyed, as God’s command, in all that it requires; embraced, as God’s pledge, in all that it promises.

4. Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives.

5. The authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded, or made relative to a view of truth contrary to the Bible’s own; and such lapses bring serious loss to both the individual and the Church.

This summary is followed by nineteen brief “articles of affirmation and denial.”  A few that might be of particular interest:

Article I
We affirm that the Holy Scriptures are to be received as the authoritative Word of God. 

We deny that the Scriptures receive their authority from the Church, tradition, or any other human source. 

Article II
We affirm that the Scriptures are the supreme written norm by which God binds the conscience, and that the authority of the Church is subordinate to that of Scripture. 

We deny that Church creeds, councils, or declarations have authority greater than or equal to the authority of the Bible.

Article VII
We affirm that inspiration was the work in which God by His Spirit, through human writers, gave us His Word. The origin of Scripture is divine. The mode of divine inspiration remains largely a mystery to us. 

We deny that inspiration can be reduced to human insight, or to heightened states of consciousness of any kind. 

Article VIII
We affirm that God in His Work of inspiration utilized the distinctive personalities and literary styles of the writers whom He had chosen and prepared. 

We deny that God, in causing these writers to use the very words that He chose, overrode their personalities. 

Article X
We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic [i.e., original—NT] text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original. 

We deny that any essential element of the Christian faith is affected by the absence of the autographs. We further deny that this absence renders the assertion of Biblical inerrancy invalid or irrelevant. 

Article XII
We affirm that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit. 

We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood. 

[Note: to the best of my understanding, this article doesn’t rule out such views as an “old earth” (i.e., one that is several billion years old) or conceptions of evolution that are superintended by God’s providence.  Many biblical inerrantists suggest that such views are consistent with a proper understanding of the biblical accounts, which they fully affirm to be completely trustworthy and ultimately authoritative.—NT]  

Article XIII
We affirm the propriety of using inerrancy as a theological term with reference to the complete truthfulness of Scripture. 

We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations.

The entire Statement (linked above) is a brief and worthwhile read.  I’ll close with a helpful paragraph from the preface:

We offer this Statement in a spirit, not of contention, but of humility and love, which we purpose by God’s grace to maintain in any future dialogue arising out of what we have said. We gladly acknowledge that many who deny the inerrancy of Scripture do not display the consequences of this denial in the rest of their belief and behavior, and we are conscious that we who confess this doctrine often deny it in life by failing to bring our thoughts and deeds, our traditions and habits, into true subjection to the divine Word.

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