Believing the Bible:
the issue of inerrancy
By Andrew Lansdown
Before we can believe in the Bible we need to believe certain things about the Bible. To begin with, we need to believe that it is true, utterly true. This belief is expressed in the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, which I wish to define and defend.
Essentially, the word “inerrancy” means “freedom from error”. Hence, when we say that a document is inerrant, we are saying that it is without error. There are no mistakes in it.
“Inerrancy” means much the same as “infallibility”: the two terms are virtually interchangeable.
The doctrine of inerrancy asserts that the Bible is completely without error. It is totally truthful and entirely reliable. It is infallible, inerrant.
As originally given
There is, however, one important qualification. The doctrine of inerrancy maintains that the Bible is without error as originally given. This places an emphasis on what the authors actually wrote. The original documents (known as “autographs”) were entirely accurate and true.
Some people feel that this qualification turns the doctrine into a mere abstraction, as the original documents no longer exist. Four things need to be said in answer to this.
Firstly, while the originals no longer exist, we know of a certainty that they once did exist. The existence of a copy proves the prior existence of the original; for we could not have copies without there being originals from which the copies were made. Given that there were once original documents, it is important for us to consider what their nature must have been.
Secondly, our attitude to the originals will affect our attitude to the copies. If we believe that the originals were marred by error, then we must inevitably believe that the copies are also marred, only more so.
Thirdly, our attitude to the originals will affect our attitude to textual scholarship. For if we believe that the originals were without error, then we will also believe that in reconstructing the originals we are reconstructing an inerrant Bible. Hence textual scholarship is of great importance to Christians who believe in inerrancy.
Fourthly, Christ and the apostles did not possess the original documents but this did not undermine their belief in the accuracy and reliability of Scripture.
The absence of the original documents does not invalidate the doctrine of inerrancy, nor does it turn the doctrine into a mere academic exercise.
Certainly, over the centuries the original documents have been lost and the copies that survive vary from one another in minor ways. These textual variations have to be evaluated in order to determine what the authors originally wrote. However, biblical scholars have been able to determine the wording of the original documents with great certainty. And in so far as we have recovered the original wording we possess the inerrant Word of God.
Approximately 97% of the Bible we have today accurately duplicates, word for word, what was originally written by the prophets and apostles. Dr Harold Lindsell states:
Anyone who has doubts about the accuracy of the Scriptures that have come down to us by transmission through copyists is misinformed. We can say honestly that the Bible we have today is the Word of God. This is not to deny the existence of textual problems … But the textual problems are minimal. Thus it is, that one of the world’s foremost New Testament scholars, F.F. Bruce, has this to say in response to those who claim that infallibility is void because we do not have the original documents, and because of variant readings we cannot get back to them: ‘The variant readings about which any doubt remains … affects no material question of historic fact or of Christian faith and practice.’1
Biblical inerrancy begins by affirming the reliability of Scripture as originally given and ends by affirming the reliability of Scripture as preserved in our age.
Inerrancy and inspiration
The doctrine of inerrancy is merely a logical extension of the doctrine of inspiration that Scripture teaches concerning itself. When we recognise that the Divine Author of Scripture is “the Spirit of truth” (John 14:7; 15:26; 16:13), we cannot escape the conclusion that everything he has inspired is truth-full. The Spirit of truth could not have inserted error into or conveyed error through Scripture, for it is impossible for him to lie or to be mistaken.
Some people point out that, while the Holy Spirit is infallible, his co-authors, the prophets and apostles, were fallible. Consequently, they say, the human authors could have—indeed, must have—made mistakes in what they wrote. This ignores the truth that the human authors spoke “as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21; NIV). The Spirit was at work in the minds of the writers, guiding their thoughts and investigations not only to reveal truth to them but also to preserve them from error as they wrote. If God can work through a sinful woman to give us the sinless, incarnate Word, he can surely work through fallible men to give us the inerrant, written Word. Lindsell rightly observes, “It is no more strange that … Scripture should be free from error than that the human Jesus born of the Virgin Mary should be free from original sin.”2
The Spirit’s work of preservation
Christians often acknowledge the work of the Holy Spirit in inspiring the Scriptures through the prophets and the apostles. However, we are apt to overlook that the Holy Spirit has been at work throughout the ages to preserve the Scriptures.
Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 2:6-16 that the Holy Spirit (1) searched out the deep things of God, (2) revealed them to the prophets and apostles, (3) motivated these men to write them down, and (4) guided them as they wrote.3It is inconceivable that the Holy Spirit should go to such trouble and then abandon his work to the ravages of time and the vagaries of men.
The inspiring Spirit is also the preserving Spirit. This is why our Lord could say, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matthew 24:35; cf 5:18).
The word “inerrancy”
It has been argued that inerrancy is not an acceptable doctrine because the word “inerrant” does not appear in Scripture. However, the Church encapsulates a number of biblical doctrines in terms that do not appear in Scripture. The doctrine of the Trinity is a good example. Nowhere does the term appear in Scripture, yet it admirably conveys (in shorthand, as all terms do) the clear and comprehensive teaching in Scripture that God is one Being existing in three Persons.
Similarly, the doctrine of inerrancy succinctly and accurately conveys the inescapable conclusion that if the Word of God is inspired by the Spirit of God, it must be free from deliberate or inadvertent error.
While it does not actually use the word “inerrant”, Scripture clearly affirms its own inerrancy. It asserts about itself that it is entirely truthful and trustworthy in whole and in part. Psalm 119, for example, celebrates the purity and perfection of God’s Word. In verse 96, the psalmist declares: “I have seen a limit to all perfection, but thy commandment is exceedingly broad.” In contrast to everything else, there is no end, no limit, to the perfection of God’s Word.
Those who believe in inerrancy are not arguing for the word but for the concept. Like the psalmist, we believe that “the words of the Lord are flawless, like silver refined in a furnace of clay, purified seven times” (12:6, NIV). “Inerrancy” is, quite simply, a term that expresses this biblical concept. If a better term can be found to express the same concept, well and good.
Varying interpretations of inerrancy
Some people argue against the doctrine of inerrancy on the grounds that the term may mean different things to different people. However, different people have different understandings of the term “inspiration”. Is this an argument against using that term? I think not. Nor is it a legitimate argument against the use of a term like “inerrancy”. Rather, it is an argument for proper education of all Christians by pastors and theological lecturers. If the doctrine were being taught in our churches and colleges and study groups, people would not be confused about it.
Love versus inerrancy
Some people feel that discussions on the inerrancy of Scripture are divisive and therefore ought to be avoided. They point to the need for unity and brotherly love. Interestingly, people who argue this way often appeal to Scripture for support.
I once received a phone call from a Christian leader who told me that Christians ought to forget about inerrancy and give priority to loving one another. I responded, “How do you know that we ought to love one another?” The man became indignant. “From the Bible!” he said. “Precisely!” I replied. “Even our understanding of the nature and value of love is dependent upon the Bible. Yet by throwing a shadow on the Bible you throw a shadow even on the commandment to love one another, for how can I be sure that that commandment is not one of the errors in the Bible?”
The inculcation and preservation of a reverence for Scripture is not in conflict with the outworking of love. Quite the reverse. The preservation of a high view of Scripture ought to be seen as an act of love because it is a pre-requisite of love. Our very understanding of the nature and function of love is dependent upon Scripture. More than this, for love to be genuine and enduring it must be built upon what is true.
The same applies to unity. Unity itself cannot be our highest goal because it is derived from the attainment of another goal—namely, an understanding of, and commitment to, what is true. When Jesus prayed for unity among Christians, he first asked the Father to “Sanctify them in the truth”; he then explained, “thy word is truth” (John 17:17). In this way, he emphasised the primacy not only of the truth but also of the Bible, which is the embodiment of truth.
Inerrancy and authority
How we view the inerrancy of Scripture will affect how we view the authority of Scripture. Logically, if the Bible is not free from error in whole and in part, it cannot be fully authoritative. For it must forfeit its authority at that point where it contains error. The man who believes that there are errors in the Bible cannot rationally submit himself wholly to its authority. For in doing so, he would inevitably, at some point, be submitting to error.
A belief in the inerrancy of Scripture provides a rational basis for a belief in the authority of Scripture, which in turn provides a rational basis for obedience to Scripture.
Concerning the relationship between inerrancy and authority, Dr J.I. Packer declares:
“When historic Christianity receives the Bible as an absolute authority for creed and conduct, it does so on the basis that since God is a God of truth and righteousness, that which he lays before us in writing must have the same qualities. The current inerrancy debate about whether we should treat all Bible teaching as true and right is really about how far we can regard Scripture as authoritative.”4
The early Protestants were well aware of the essential interrelationship between inerrancy (ie, infallibility) and authority, as is evident from their creeds. The 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith (London), for example, speaks of “our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth, and divine authority” of Scripture, and declares that “The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain and infallible rule of all saving Knowledge, Faith and Obedience”.
The Bible is the believer’s sole authority in matters of faith and conduct. It alone is fully authoritative because it alone can be relied upon to speak without error. Sola scriptura, Scripture alone: this is one of the great doctrines of the Reformation, which stands or falls on the inerrancy of the Bible.
History and creation
The doctrine of inerrancy asserts that the Bible is reliable not only in matters of faith and conduct but also in matters of history and creation. Indeed, as all these matters are interwoven, the accuracy of one affects the accuracy of another. As stated by Harold Lindsell, inerrancy means that the Bible
communicates religious truth, not religious error. But there is more. Whatever it communicates is to be trusted and can be relied upon as being true. The Bible is not a textbook on chemistry, astronomy, philosophy, or medicine. But when it speaks on matters having to do with these or any other subjects, the Bible does not lie to us. It does not contain error of any kind.5
Religion, history, science: the Bible does not err in its statements on any of these matters. Indeed, as all these matters are interwoven, the accuracy of one affects the accuracy of another. The doctrines of sin and salvation, for example, rest upon the literal truthfulness of the opening chapters of Genesis. The creation of Adam and his fall into sin are no less historical realities than the incarnation of Christ and his crucifixion. Indeed, the first events necessitated the second, which the apostle Paul recognises when he declares, “as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men” (Romans 5:18).
Dr Francis A. Schaeffer warns that some evangelical Christians do not mean what might be supposed when they claim to believe in the truthfulness and trustworthiness of the Bible. When pressed, it becomes apparent that they separate doctrine and conduct from history and creation, claiming that Scripture is reliable concerning the former but not the latter. For this reason, Schaeffer says, any doctrinal statement on Scripture must declare plainly that “the Bible is without error not only when it speaks of values, the meaning system, and religious things, but it is also without error when it speaks of history and the cosmos.”6
Even if we classify creation and history as minor in comparison with faith and conduct, mistakes in those matters could have major ramifications. For it is hardly sensible to trust Scripture in the big things if it cannot be trusted in the small. If the God who was there cannot tell us how sin entered the world, why should we believe him when he tells us how sinners can enter the Otherworld? And if the Creator cannot accurately tell us how we came to have life, why should we believe him when he tells us how we should live?
Problems of an “errancy” view
As with other doctrines, an inerrancy position involves some difficulties. This needs to be acknowledged. But it would be a mistake to believe that the problems are all one-sided. The “errancy” position is also problematic.
Those who oppose the doctrine of inerrancy must consider questions such as these: How do you adhere to the full inspiration of Scripture if you believe that it contains errors? If there are errors in Scripture, how does this reflect on the character of the Spirit of Truth? If God was unable to work through sinful men to give us a perfect written Word, can we still believe that he was able to work through a sinful woman to give us a perfect incarnate Word? If God was unable to communicate with us perfectly, what does this say about his sovereignty? If the Bible is untrustworthy on “small” things, is it sensible to trust it on “big” things? If Scripture is errant, how can it be fully authoritative? If it is errant, who will determine which passages we are to believe and which we are to reject?
The problems surrounding an inerrancy view are less serious both in nature and in consequence than problems surrounding the contrary view.
A belief in the inerrancy of Scripture is both biblical and logical. Such a belief requires faith and humility, and encourages a reverential attitude towards the Word of God. Those who study the Scriptures with humility and reverence soon discover with David (Psalm 19:7-10) that:
The law of the Lord is perfect
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure,
enlightening the eyes …
the ordinances of the Lord are true,
and righteous altogether.
Perfect, sure, right, pure, true: these are the characteristics of Scripture that Scripture claims for itself; and these are the characteristics of Scripture that the doctrine of inerrancy affirms. This is why Christians should affirm the doctrine.
1. The Battle For The Bible (Zondervan, 1976), p.37.
2. op cit, p.34.
3. See John R.W. Stott’s The Bible: book for today (Inter-Varsity Press, 1981), pp.36-52.
4. Freedom, Authority & Scripture (Inter-Varsity Press, 1981), p.16.
5. op cit, p.18.
6. The Great Evangelical Disaster (Kingsway Publications, 1985), p.57.
Unless otherwise stated, Bible quotations are from the
Revised Standard Version (1971).
Copyright © Andrew Lansdown, 1987, 2012
First published 1987. Revised and reprinted 2012.
Published by Life Ministries. Additional copies of this pamphlet are available from Life Ministries, Suite 4, 334 Wanneroo Road, Nollamara, Western Australia, 6061. Phone/fax (08) 9344 7396Website: www.lifeministries.org.au