Beginning this series of blog posts on what the confessional and missional movements should learn from each other with the doctrine of Scripture is no accident. As a Protestant, I firmly believe in sola scriptura and believe that, overall, the doctrine is helpful to the church. In addition, my commitment to the Reformed tradition binds me to chapter 1 of the Westminster Confession of Faith and it’s upholding the sufficiency, perspicuity, and truthfulness of Scripture. Finally, my commitment as an orthodox evangelical upholds the inerrancy of God’s Word.
So, why bring up this dreaded word? Often, opponents of inerrancy claim that it is an invention of modernity, demands precisionism, binds one to a wooden literalism, undermines the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit, produces a static doctrine of Scripture, etc. Surely, this isn’t the way to bridge the missional and confessional.
There is no doubt that our beliefs about the Bible are important. In my reading missional literature, many seem to dismiss these debates as unimportant, or they opt for a neo-Orthodox perspective (e.g. Darrel L. Guder, ed. The Missional Church). Below are some reasons why those in the missional movement should regard inerrancy of Scripture as true and good for the church.
1. There is no reason to think that inerrancy is more problematic than non-inerrancy views of Scripture. While many decry the numerous qualifications made by inerrantists, it is just as much the case that partial inerrantists, infallibilists, etc. have to make qualifications as well. (Pete Enns seems to make more qualifications than inerrantists.) The main difference is that the inerrantist qualification is, “Scripture is still true despite it’s lack of precision” while the non-inerrantist qualification is, “Even if Scripture isn’t true in some parts, it still is authoritative.”
2. I have yet to see any compelling argument that the early church didn’t view Scripture as inerrant. John Woodbridge, Tom Oden, and JND Kelly have all done the research to prove this point. The famous quote from Augustine is also compelling, “If we are perplexed by an apparent contradiction in Scripture, it is not allowable to say, The author of this book is mistaken; but either the manuscript is faulty, or the translation is wrong, or you have not understood.”
3. As Tim Keller pointed out on a panel discussion alongsideAlister McGrath and Brian McClaren at a Q conference, it is unintelligible to laypeople to make them distinguish between an inerrant Bible and an infallible Bible. To the layperson, you either believe the Bible is true and authoritative, or you don’t. So there is no harm in using the word inerrancy if we want people to see the Bible as true and authoritative.
4. I’ve never understood the debate between inerrantists and infallibilists. Though this evangelical-Barthian distinction is a part of my own denomination’s history, infallibilists aren’t defining the their term in it’s first sense. Infallibility means ‘not possible to err.’ Since inerrancy means ‘to not err’, infallibility is actually a stronger claim than inerrancy. It is possible for a phone book to be inerrant since we might imagine a possible world where at least one phone book is produced that accurately records all names, numbers, addresses, advertising information, etc. However, a phone book is not infallible, since there are possible worlds with phone books that do err. However, a good argument can be made that Scripture is infallible since it is necessarily inerrant (i.e. does not err in any possible state of affairs)
5. As Kevin Vanhoozer points out in his chapter on Barth’s doctrine of Scripture in Karl Barth and Evangelical theology: Convergences and Divergences, while some inerrantists might be wary for Barth’s more dynamic doctrine wherein the Bible “becomes the Word of God” to the reader, such a position doesn’t need to submit to Schleiermachian subjectivism. Nor do those who appreciate Barth need to be scared of the metaphysical objectivism of inerrantists. Vanhoozer’s often cited locution-illocution-perlocution paradigm beautifully weds a doctrine of Scripture that affirms the propositional and truth content of Scripture along with its effectual nature to the reader. If Scripture is both/and, not either/or, then inerrancy is an acceptable adjective to describe Scripture.
6. It’s difficult for me to think that men like John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Martin Luther, St. Augustine, the patristics, Sinclair Ferguson, John Frame, Tim Keller, Kevin Vanhoozer, D.A. Carson, Nicholas Perrin, William B. Evans, Billy Graham, Richard Gaffin, Herman Bavinck, Abraham Kuyper, John Girardeau, Vern Poythress, Trevin Wax, etc. are off-base when it comes to the inerrancy of Scripture.
7. The doctrine of inerrancy seems to be tied to the Missio Dei. One of the key themes of the book of Acts is the spreading of God’s Word.
8. I just can’t imagine the Apostles being asked if they believed in the infallible Old Testament but not an inerrant Old Testament. Even more so, I can’t imagine Jesus making a statement that the Old Testament was in error while he repeated the refrain “It is written.”
I could go on. While I didn’t rehearse the various scriptural arguments for inerrancy (the literature on that topic is vast), I gave reasons that have personally challenged me over the years. I’ve also benefitted from nuanced-scholarly and practical treatments on the subject. It doesn’t get much better than William B. Evans, Kevin Vanhoozer, and Andrew Wilson.
We shouldn’t be scared of inerrancy. While it is not the first word one might use to describe Scripture (especially if infallibility is ‘inerrancy on steroids’), it is a legitimate and sober claim. Still, I agree with John Frame’s point that having several descriptions and adjectives for Scripture can be overwhelming, and that it might be more prudent to say, “Scripture is true” and to leave it at that.