This article has been updated in response to helpful reader comments.
I believe the Bible is “breathed out by God”, as Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:16 (ESV). I think the ESV’s translation here is far superior to most other Bibles which simply say “inspired”, as if “God-breathed” is too difficult a metaphor for English-speakers to parse should it be translated literally. All kinds of books are inspired by God—Pilgrim’s Progress, for instance—but only one is breathed out by him, as someone breathes out when speaking.
Scripture’s God-breathedness has traditionally been a sufficient ground for maintaining its inerrancy. The argument is simple:
- All Scripture is God’s speech (2 Tim 3:16; 2 Pet 1:20)
- God is truth and it is impossible for him to lie (John 14:6; Heb 6:18)
- Therefore, all Scripture is true and free from falsehood or error (John 17:17)
The problem is how this cashes out “on the ground”. Enough ink has been spilled over this topic to destroy an ocean, but Christians generally turn to certain, popular formulations of inerrancy when wanting to understand or defend or explain it.
But I think these definitions have a problem that is causing much angst among Christians today—and leading many of them away from inerrancy. That problem is weaselly language at the most crucial point of these formulations.
Let me show you what I mean:
Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (source)
When we say that the Bible is inerrant, we mean that the Bible makes good on its claims. John Frame (source)
The inerrancy of Scripture means that Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 90
Now let me illustrate the difficulty implicit in all these definitions by asking you a simple question: In Jude 1:9, is the Bible “teaching”, “claiming”, or “affirming” that the archangel Michael disputed with Satan over the body of Moses? Or, assuming Troy Martin is correct and Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:13-15 is suggesting that one would not expose one’s genitals during worship, is the Bible “teaching”, “claiming”, or “affirming” the woefully mistaken Hippocratic anatomy that Paul’s argument hinges on?
Mark Goodacre has criticized this theory, but Martin has responded very convincingly.
You see, the difficulty is that often it is far from obvious what it means for the Bible to teach, claim, or affirm something. Using this kind of language is weaselly because it slips right around how complex and difficult it is to define these key terms themselves.
Using simplistic placeholder words where what we actually need is clear-cut explanations of their meaning is not helpful to anyone. A formulation of inerrancy, above all things, should not leave it to the reader to figure out the very issue at the heart of inerrancy: namely, what it means for the Bible to teach, claim, or affirm something. This is especially true since most Christians see the simplistic words and therefore figure that their meaning is simple. They struggle to reconcile inerrancy with passages like the ones I mentioned above because their straightforward understanding of teaching/claiming/affirming leads them to think the Bible is doing these things about facts which are either questionable (Jude), or obviously wrong (Paul).
I am not saying that a good definition of inerrancy will resolve the question of what constitutes teaching, claiming, or affirming. That is a hermeneutical issue—a difficulty of interpretation, not a difficulty of doctrine. But it should at least make the difficulty clear, and point the way to finding a solution; rather than obscuring how it might be resolved, and even its existence in the first place.
A more helpful definition of inerrancy
Here is what I propose, taking for granted that we’re talking about the original manuscripts:
Inerrancy: in every passage of Scripture, God conveys through the scribe all the information he intended to, with all the accuracy and precision possible given the contrivances of human expression (genre, conventions, vocabulary, beliefs, expectations etc).
You can see that I am trying to cover some broad bases here. A scribe can be an author or a redactor, for example. But my primary concern is in recognizing that while God superintended the creation of Scripture (whether breathing out the words, or breathing out the canon—they are the same process), he used particular people with particular beliefs (many of them false), and particular expectations about what truth would look like, and particular ideas about how to convey it, to achieve his purpose.
Often that’s messier than 21st century, scientific-age Western readers would like. Sometimes it presents hard interpretive questions as we try to figure out where the message God intended to convey differs from his chosen “delivery mechanism” (as in the case of 1 Corinthians 11:13-15). To take an analogy, if human expression is like a four-pack of crayons, which seems about right, God’s communication with us will look rather different than if he had had access to a technical drawing kit. But if God was fine with that, we should be too.