One of the greatest attacks on Scripture comes from those who misunderstand the doctrine of inerrancy. A couple of years ago this chart was brought to my attention. I did not think it was serious, but it really is. It is supposed to represent the thousands of contradictions in the Bible. However, all it really represents is that the person who created it has no idea what inspiriation and inerrancy mean, nor how to do basic interpretation of literature (ancient or modern).
Sadly, though, it is becoming increasingly clear (again) that even some of those who believe in the inerrancy of Scripture have different interpretations of what inerrancy means. I believe in inerrancy. But maybe not how others define it. I am not trying to redefine anything, but the fact is that when it comes to this issue, there is a spectrum of belief among those who confess the doctrine. I am sure there would be some out there who would see my view of inerrancy as a liberal compromise.
Inerrancy: the Biblical doctrine which says that Scripture, in the autographs (originals), when interpreted correctly, is true in all that it teaches and upon which it touches.
I remember when I was young and I first began to read the Gospels. I was rather confused about the repetition of the story of Christ. I was further confused that there seemed to be many places where the same event was told in different ways, using different words, and sometimes with different people involved. Whether it was Christ’s encounter with the demoniacs (Luke 18:27ff; Matthew 8:28ff) or the words written above the cross (Mark 15:26; John 19:19), there were differences. I noticed that differences of this type were a primary criticism to which skeptics would refer when attacking the reliability of Scripture and the truth of Christianity. This disturbed me. If the Bible was inspired, these differences should not be there. Isn’t the Bible inerrant? If it is, it cannot have discrepancies. How could God have gotten it wrong? As I sought answers, I found initial comfort in those who would explain these “discrepancies” in some very creative ways. Most would say that the parallel accounts that I was having problems with were not really parallel at all. They were different encounters altogether!
These explanations satisfied me at the time. I thus unknowingly adopted a strict view that I call “technically precise inerrancy.” This means that all the writers of Scripture, by virtue of their ultimate source of information (God), recorded everything precisely as it occurred. It also means that we attempt to take the Bible with an absolute literalism until forced to opt for another approach.
I later came to realize that this methodology was not only unnecessary but was actually birthed, I believe, out of a very gnostic view of Scripture. I was so emphasizing God’s role in the writing of Scripture that the role of man could not be found. Yet if God used man in writing Scripture, and Scripture was intended for man, then would God not have used a common means of communication that did not require technical precision in describing events?
To make a long story short, I moved toward a view I call “reasoned inerrancy.” “Reasoned inerrancy” is a definition which recognizes that the Scriptures must be understood according to the rules of interpretation governed by genre, historical accommodations, context, argument, and purpose. In other words, the modernistic need for things to be technically precise with regard to Scripture, ironically held by both ultra-conservatives and skeptics who seek to pick apart the Bible, is just that – a modern need that produces a warped apologetic and a faulty hermeneutic.
Let me further define the faulty presupposition of the “technically precise” view of inerrancy. The presupposition is this: All writers of Scripture, by virtue of divine inspiration and inerrancy, must have recorded everything in a technically precise way. I take issue with this presupposition. I do not believe that inspiration and inerrancy require technical precision. Why would it be so difficult to believe that the authors of Scripture would take liberties in their recording of the Gospel narrative? Does “taking liberties” in the way someone recounts an event mean that they are producing fabrications or lies? Can’t people tell the same story different ways and even nuance that story according to their purposes and still be accurate?
We would never place this type of restraint upon people today. The Gospel writers were simply telling the story of Christ as enthusiastic reporters of good news who were emotionally committed to the truths which they were reporting. This happens every day in our own news reporting system and we don’t hold those reporters’ feet to the fire of technical precision.
Let’s do a test. Let’s look at multiple accounts of one event. We will take three accounts of the recent staff meeting at Credo House and see how they fare.
Original statement from me during the staff meeting: “This year has been a tremendous year at Credo House. The place is full of young people hanging out, playing pool, and enjoying Saint Nicholases (double shot espresso, red velvet, with a hint of mint). Just today, I was telling a young couple about how to verify whether or not historical events of the past actually took place, then I applied that to the resurrection of Christ. I could see in their eyes the excitement and intrigue that our faith is really true! I am now going to try to get people to stand behind this ministry.”
My sister could report this to a donor to the Credo House in this way: “Michael just told us during a meeting that the ministry is accomplishing exactly what we hoped the Lord would do through it. People are believing more today than yesterday. But he says we need funding to keep this going.”
One of my baristas could have described the same event to a friend this way: “Today at our staff meeting we learned something ground-breaking about how historical events can be verified! Michael was talking to people at the Credo House about this today. He says that we can verify whether the Gospels are without error.”
Both gave a summation of my speech which focused on the elements that they needed in order to accomplish their purpose. My barista did not need to talk about the funding of the ministry, so that was left out. As well, he embellished a bit when he quoted me as saying we can verify that the Gospels are without error. I did not originally say that. However, I would not say that he spoke untruthfully. He knows me well enough to know I believe in the total truthfulness of Scripture. Therefore, he knows that “the Gospels are without error” is a correct implication of what I was saying. As well, was this groundbreaking news? From his perspective, it was. But from the perspective of others who have been involved in this issue, it is nothing new.
My sister, who is calling donors, chooses to focus on the implications of what I said with regard to the mission of the Credo House. But she also included her interpretation of what I meant when I said, “I am now going to try to get people to stand behind this ministry.” She turned that into, “we need funding to keep this going.” This is perfectly understandable, considering her audience.
The point is that both my sister and my barista accurately represented what I said at the staff meeting. But they both put it in their own words and chose what they wanted to include and what they wanted to leave out to suit their purposes.
This is the same when it comes to Scripture. We must allow the biblical authors this right. We must allow them to have a particular purpose in writing. We must allow for this type of freehanded, nuanced, yet altogether accurate (inerrant) method of recounting the events. This liberty is part of inspiration. We believe that the Bible is a product that involves 100% man’s input and 100% God’s, don’t we? If we don’t, then we might as well take man out of the picture altogether and admit we hold to mechanical dictation (that God simply used the human authors’ hands in writing the Scripture, not their heads – this is sometimes called biblical docetism). If mechanical dictation is true, then we should not care who the authors were writing to and we certainly should not care why they were writing, since their motives do not influence the interpretation.
Some may accuse me of adopting “redaction criticism.” Redaction criticism is the critical method of study that assumes the Gospel writers changed the events surrounding the life of Christ to fit their purpose. I do understand that people have taken redaction criticism too far. Some have gone to the point of denying the truthfulness of the message, based upon the expediency of the moment. This is not what I am doing or suggesting. I am just giving the authors liberty to write an accurate account of the events, while not having to be technically precise with the wording, structure, or what they choose to include or leave out.
Scholars refer to these issues by discussing the difference between ipsissima verba (the very words) and ipsissima vox (the very voice). Did the writers record the very words of Christ or the spirit of truth that his words represent? I would say any inductive approach to arriving at a correct hermeneutic demands the latter. Only if we deduce that our theology of inspiration demands a strict level of preciseness within Scripture in order to be true will we adopt the former. I believe I have demonstrated that this is not only altogether unnecessary and naive, but misleading and dangerous.
Do I believe in inerrancy? If you mean “technically precise inerrancy,” the answer is no. But if you mean “reasoned inerrancy” that holds to an authorial intent hermeneutical method which includes ipsissima vox, then the answer is yes.
By the way, this is nothing new. It is simply how the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy defines the subject. I only wish that skeptics like those who produce these charts would at least attempt to avoid creating straw man arguments. Then again, it would not be much of a poster if they did not! However, I do think we need to give them the benefit of the doubt and know that they may be like some of my ultra-conservative friends in believing that inerrancy demands technical precision. This is getting inerrancy wrong.
I look forward to your comments.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminar (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]