Monday, December 7, 2009

2 Reasons Why Inerrancy is Meaningless

Over at Thinking Matters there is a discussion about the doctrine of Inerrancy, the teaching that the Bible is without error. This is given its fullest and most recent form in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.

The first reason this statement is meaningless is that it carefully specifies which Bible it refers to, and it is not the NJV, or the NIV or even Nestle and Aland 4th Edition, but the "autographic text of Scripture." Which is just nonsense. While some of the books of the Bible, especially the NT epistles could be said to have had autographic texts, many are the product of sustained development and/or combined traditions. Were these traditions or earlier forms inerrant also? And at what point did the scriptures cease to be inerrant, i.e. the diverse traditions that we have now? More to the point, even if at some stage the "original manuscripts" did exist at some time in some pristine inerrant form, it does us no good whatsoever as they are no longer extant. In Article 10 the authors of the statement preempt my objection.
We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic 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.
That final denial changes nothing. The doctrine of Inerrancy given here is about a set of documents that no longer exists and never existed as a set. Not only that but because we don't have the originals to compare we can never be sure which copies and translations are the word of God (according to this statement). This doctrine actually takes the Bible away from us as God's word, instead of reasuring us of its character as divine revelation.

The second reason Inerrancy is meaningless is that even if we had before us a pristine inerrant text (which we don't) it would still require an inerrant authoritative interpretation for its inerrancy to be any good for us. As I understand it, the root of this sort of inerrancy talk is actually found in the Roman Catholic church during the Reformation, for exactly this reason. They wanted to hedge the Bible in from the reformers and so argued that only the church could give an authoritative interpretation of the inerrant document. How this control freak tendency manifests itself now is painfully apparent over at the Thinking Matters website where the authoritative interpretation is appears to be in the hands of whoever is asserting inerrancy most vehemently. In the comments of his post Bnon is able to appeal to the "clear" sensus plenior* (comment at 3:47 on 20Nov) and also use his clearly limited (not to mention inaccurate) understanding of Koine Greek to browbeat an opponent without actually explaining what he means** (comment at 11:31 on 20Nov). The fact that he feels able to do this is presumably the result of understanding himself as that authoritative interpreter of the inerrant documents. At least I can't think of any other good reason.

Don't get me wrong, I have a high view of Scripture, high enough to have devoted the last 10 years of my life to teaching and studying it. But talk of inerrancy doesn't do the Bible any favours, it's just power games and nonsense.

Let me know what you think :-)

* The Sensus Plenior is characterised by it being something beyond the literal meaning of the text and therefore something not at all "clear."
** In Koine Greek, as in modern English, it is perfectly possible to refer to the same thing with two different words, e.g. "My running-shoes are on my feet, yes my trainers." Which is beside the point as both Heb 4:12 and John 1:1 use logos. (Of course that doesn't mean Heb 4:12 and John 1:1 are referring to the same object, only that they are not necessarily not doing so on the basis of the words used.)


  1. I'm pleased that the Thinking Matters discussion has prompted further online discussion. It was written as a response to my own denial of the doctrine of inerrancy.

    Jonathan, I think that it's sometimes tempting to use the word "meaningless" because it sounds rhetorically powerful. But surely the doctrine of innerrancy is not meaningless. It asserts that the original autographs of the books of the Bible, when those autographs were completed in their final (individual) forms, were without error.

    This is not only meaningful, but it has consequences that will understandably be seen as very important by someone who believes in inerrancy. It's meaningful because it makes a claim that a) actually contains meaning - it can be understood, and which b) can be understood as something that could actually be true (whether it really is true or not). So it's meaningful.

    It has consequences too. It means that textual criticism becomes incredibly important, because the closer we get to reconstructing the originals, the closer we get to an absolutely flawless body of writing, the very word of God exactly as God inspired it with no errors of any sort.

    Inerrancy is certainly not rendered meaningless by the argument about an infallible interpreter either. However good the interpreter is, the interpreter's job at conveying the word of God is going to be limited by how good the text before us is. According to an inerrantist, unless the Bible is inerrant, then the flawless message of God just isn't there for anyone to dig out. I think that's not true, but it's a meaningful position to hold.

    So while I don't think inerrancy is true, it isn't meaningless. It's meaningful but incorrect.

  2. Glenn, thanks for stopping by :-)

    I think that is a fair cop. I wrote this post to be as provocative as possible and perhaps meaningless was not the best word to use. However, I think in the sense of any conversation about interpretation of scripture inerrancy is meaningless in a kind of logical positivist sense. Firstly because there is no way, without being totally arbitrary, to decide for all of the OT and some of the NT which were the final forms of the original manuscript. Secondly because whether or not the Bible is inerrant (and i wouldn't necessarily say it isn't) talk about inerrancy is always actually talk about the interpreters right to interpret a text in a certain way.

    Perhaps a better word would be "counter-productive", but you are right it isn't as rhetorically effective :-)

  3. Hi Jonathan!

    Just popped onto your blog and reading some of these discussions.

    Wow! There is certainly a whole range of discussion from within the evangelical community, that I don't remember since CU days! (Spiritually and naturally a very long time ago!)

    I look forward to keeping an eye on this and to perhaps exchanging some frank, honest but loving ideas.

  4. Welcome Mat, yup, that was a long time ago for all of us! I look forward to your input :-)

  5. Thank you Jon, a valuable contribution to the discussion. My problem with this 'doctrine' is very much along these lines... perhaps meaningless is too strong - I don't know. Pointless? Nothing to be gained by it? Even if we accept Glenn's approach - I am still left thinking, 'well that's nice, but so what'? this idea is all too often used not to encourage believers, but to beat up on them!

    I am not sure why people feel that to question the meaning and value of this doctrine equates with a presumption or conclusion of the 'errancy' of scripture, rather than wanting to think of scripture rather differently to the inerrantists.

    Keep it up :)

  6. Thanks for the follow up blog, the challenge about the 'inerrant interpreter' is sharp...

  7. Hi Daniel,
    Welcome to the blog, thanks for the encouragement. :-)


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