What Is Meant by Scriptural Inerrancy?
The two assumptions I am making for this post are (1) the text that translators work with is essentially the same as the original texts or autographs, and (2) the accepted Protestant canon of sixty-six books is complete. These assumptions mean that we have in our hands what is essentially the Word of God. It can be trusted in all spiritual matters. I am allowing for differences between translations of the Hebrew and Greek texts that scholars have in their hands. These may be debated. Such differences are not an issue in this discussion of inerrancy. [See my 4 part series on Which is the most accurate translation of the Bible in contemporary English.]
It is important to distinguish between the principle of the inerrancy of scripture and the process of interpretation. These are closely connected but do not involve the same issues. It is possible to adopt a method of interpretation that undermines the principle of inerrancy. On the other hand, a particular interpretation can be pressed in such a way as to insist that failure to accept it is a violation of inerrancy. Care must be taken to recognize both errors.
Methods of interpretation are formally called hermeneutics. The process of interpreting is called exegesis. It means drawing out of the text of scripture the significance of the text. The process of “reading meaning into” scripture is called eisegesis. It is important to take care in our expositions that we do not impose on scripture meaning that was not intended. The ease with which we make this mistake is frightening and scripture warns against it. (e.g., Prov. 30:6.)
A general treatment of the inerrancy of Scripture is a large complex topic that has been considered by Biblical scholars since the Bible in its current form was put together.1 The references given below are recent considerations of this topic which are recommended to those who wish to dig deeper. My treatment here must necessarily be superficial and can only give a general idea of this principle.
God leaves no doubt that we must receive His Word as Truth. One scripture that states this principle simply and clearly is 2 Timothy 3:16–17.
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
Astonishingly, I have seen a description of this passage which made it read “All Scripture that is profitable is God-breathed.” The many translations that I have examined all give the usual reading given in the passage quoted above that “All Scripture is God-breathed” or something equivalent. The importance of this must be evident. We must not allow our judgment of the “profitably” of any passage of Scripture to influence our sense of God’s authority speaking in it. We must sit, like Mary, at the feet of the Lord (Lk. 10:39) when we read God’s Word. It must have authority over our souls.
Some translations say “inspiration of God” for “God-breathed”, or might say “divinely inspired.” We should note that the use of the word “inspiration” or “inspired” in this context is not as vague as when we say of some music or poetry, or even a lecture “that was truly inspired” or “inspirational.” The sense of “inspired by God” should be taken as that the passage was so superintended by divine power that the words do convey what is the mind of God Himself.
Are there difficult passages? Of course. It would not be God’s Word if there were not. (Isa. 55:8–9) Yet, even the most difficult passages convey to us what God intended us to know and we must not trifle with that.
The work of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI) is described in the reference given below, Defending Inerrancy. This reference gives much detail that we cannot include here. There are nineteen “articles” of a few sentences each that define in detail aspects of inerrancy that most conservative Christian Scholars subscribe to. The articles are available online at https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/chicago-statement. I cannot review this document in this post. My purpose is to state a few basic principles and to point to sources for further reading.
It is interesting that even without referring to Scripture itself we can derive the principle of inerrancy from our knowledge of God’s divine attributes. First, God is sovereign. Indeed, to be God in any proper sense of the word He must be sovereign. Second, He is also true and faithful. Again, our own consciences declare Him to have these attributes. We value these attributes even if we do not follow them ourselves. So, even simple reason tells us that God, if He is to be God in any proper sense, must be absolutely truthful. And, if He is sovereign He certainly can oversee the expression of His mind. Thus, even just from reason alone, we can deduce that God’s Word is inerrant.
The hermeneutic that the ICBI requires is called the “grammatico-historical exegesis” (Article 18). This is the kind of interpretive method that comes naturally as we read Scripture as straightforward text. We examine the grammatical structure with an accepted dictionary and consider the historical context. This includes recognizing metaphors, etc. as in any complex literary text. It excludes, for example, treating significant portions of text as mythological or as merely derived from extra-biblical documents.
However, it is possible to be so focused on a possible or even a probable interpretation that we take any objection to that interpretation as an attack on the inerrancy of Scripture. Inerrancy has to do with what the text of Scripture is while interpretation is what we think it means. The latter is always subject to error. So, identifying what constitutes an interpretation is important. I can only give one brief example from history.
In the 1500s a debate raged regarding whether the sun was fixed in space or the earth was fixed with the sun revolving around it. Martin Luther among others asserted confidently, based on Ecclesiastes 1:5 and Psalms 104:5 that the sun revolves around a fixed earth. Today we interpret these verses differently even though the texts seem to support Dr. Luther. The “new-fangled” ideas of Copernicus and, later, Galileo prevailed, based on careful observation, calculations, and reading of Scripture. This is a lesson we should take seriously.
On the other hand, there are many examples today of expositors and scholars using interpretive methods that undermine the inerrancy of Scripture. The books in the “Resources” section give examples and commentary.
Geisler, Normal L., and William C. Roach. Defending Inerrancy. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011.
Kostenberger, Andreas J., Darrell l. Bock, and Josh D. Chatraw. Truth in a Culture of Doubt. Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2014.
Ross, Hugh N., Rescuing Inerrancy: A Scientific Defense, Covina: RTB Press, 2023.
1. Earliest records indicate that the books (manuscripts) we have in our New Testament were considered Scripture. Technically, the councils of Hippo (393AD) and Carthage (397AD) recognized the canon as God-breathed rather than assemble the existing canon. Both of these included some of the Apocrypha, which weren’t fully removed from the canon until the Reformation.