I received a question about the doctrine of inerrancy. Can a Christian doubt inerrancy and yet be obedient to the teachings in scripture?
My response is below:
Perhaps it would be helpful to back up and look at the relationship of inerrancy, inspiration, and Christianity.
One does not need to believe in inerrancy in order to become a Christian. They can take the New Testament documents as just a collection of documents that have survived from the first century. It is on this basis that the historical case for the resurrection is built by establishing several facts that are well document and of which the resurrection is the best explanation. This view does not entail that the New Testament documents do contain errors, but rather this approach simply remains ambivalent regarding the question of inerrancy as it explores the case for the resurrection.
Once one believes in the resurrection, one will find that the inspiration of the scriptures follows suit. Jesus, for example, endorses the Old Testament as the word of God even going so far as to say that every stroke of the pen is inspired (see Matthew 5:18). This is very provocative, as it entails a particular view of inspiration known as verbal plenary inspiration. That is to say that the scriptures were penned by the author, and God’s inspiration and sovereignty over the process is sufficient to the extend that every letter is intentional and part of the inspired word of God. Note, for example, that Jesus basis one of his arguments on the tense of a verb in the Old Testament (see Mark 12:27).
Jesus further endorses his disciples, calling them apostles (or “Shaliah”) in the Hebrew. This is a specific type of relationship in their world in which the shaliah is something like what we know as a power of attorney today, someone who can speak and act on their behalf. That is to say, Christ conveyed on the disciples an incredible authority to write with his own authority. This is likely why Peter referred to the writing of Paul as scripture (see 2 Peter 3:16). Since Jesus’s understanding of the inspiration of scripture is verbal plenary inspiration (inspiration of every stroke of the pen), then it seems to follow that the scripture written by his apostles would also be inspired to this extent.
This is the basis by which Christians take the scriptures to be inspired. If God himself has inspired not just the writing of the text in general, but down to the very conjugation of the words used, then it seems to follow that the resulting text would be inerrant. Now it is important to understand that this means the scripture is true and authoritative in everything that it affirms. This does not mean that every inference, even those inferences that would have been foreign and even surprising to the original authors, is inspired. We can certainly misinterpret scripture by misunderstanding the original author’s intent.
One great example of this sort of mistake is the age of the earth debate. Many Christians are under the misunderstanding that the scripture teaches the earth is 6,000 – 10,000 years old. This was originally calculated by adding up projected lifespans in the genealogies found in scripture. There is a major problem with this approach, however, as the original authors did not intend to convey a dating method for the creation of the world. Since the scripture, as written by the authors, does not intend to affirm any particular date or date range for the creation then such date ranges are not entailed in the inspired message of God. It is for this reason that one can be an old earth creationist and yet believe in the inspiration and inerrancy of scripture.
Finally, it may be worthwhile to note that one is not committed to believing that the transmission of scripture is inerrant. What the Christian deems to be inerrant will be the original copy produced by the author. Thus the well known typos or transcription errors that have occurred over the years are no challenge to inerrancy. The vast majority of such errors are very easily identified, and many scholars place our ability to precisely represent the original copy at 98%+. For more on that topic I would recommend The Popular Handbook of Archaeology and the Bible by Holden and Geisler. Thus we are on good grounds to affirm that the scripture we have in hand is a faithful translation of what the original authors wrote.
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