For my upcoming Bibliology and Hermeneutics students, here is a rework of my stance on inerrancy.
Do I believe in inerrancy? I guess, these days, it depends on who you ask and how you define it. My initial answer is “yes”. But it may not reflect how you 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 in those who confess the doctrine. I am sure—no absolutely sure—that there would be those out there would would see my view of inerrancy as a liberal compromise. But I don’t see it in such a way.
I remember when 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; Mark 19:19), there were differences.I noticed that differences of this type were the 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? How could inspired Gospel A say something different than inspired Gospel B?
As I sought answers, I found initial comfort in those who would explain these “discrepancies” in some (very) creative ways. Some would say that the parallel accounts that I was having problems with were not really parallel at all. They were different encounters all-together.
These types of explanations satisfied me at the time. I thus, unknowingly adopted what I believe now to be an unnatural and naively strict view of inerrancy 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.
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 not have God used a common means of communication that did not require technical precision in communicating events.
To make a long story short, I slowly began to adjust my view. I now adopt a view that I call “reasoned inerrancy.” “Reasoned inerrancy” is a definition of inerrancy that recognizes the vital role that one’s hermeneutic (method of interpreting Scripture) has in defining what we mean by “inerrancy.” It takes into account that the Scriptures must be interpreted according to the rules of interpretation governed by genre, historical accommodations, context, argument, and purpose. Only then can inerrancy be understood properly.
The modernistic need for things to be technically precise with regards 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 is birthed from a faulty hermeneutic.
Faulty presupposition of “Technically Precise Inerrancy”
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. This means that everything that is recorded represents the events exactly as they occurred. Any deviation from the technically precise account, according to advocates of this view, amount to a complete undermining of the accuracy and authority of Scripture.
I take issue with this view. I do not believe that inspiration and inerrancy require technical precision. What I ask myself it this: Why would it be so difficult to believe that the authors of Scripture would take liberties in their recording of the Gospel narrative? Ouch! . . . Right? But think about it. Does taking liberties in the way someone recounts an event mean that they are producing fabrications or lies? Does it mean that they are untrustworthy accounts? 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 these types of restraints 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 upon which they were reporting. This happens every day in our own news reporting system and we don’t hold their feet to the fire of technical precision.
An Illustrated Test
Let’s do a test using one of my favorite illustrations. Let’s have two reporters report the news. We will take two reporters accounts of the president’s recent warning to Iran concerning its nuclear program and see how they fare.
Original statement from the president (not actual):
“We are winning the war on terror. The terrorists are on the run. We are dealing with each new threat in a decisive yet unique way. We have warned those regimes that seek to produce weapons of mass destruction that their time is short and they better comply with the will of the coalition or face serious consequences.”
Reporter #1: Bill O’Reilly
Context: Debate concerning whether or not we should turn our attention from Iraq to Iran.
Nuance: O’Reilly is defending the president to a leftist who believes that Bush is not focusing on the right war.
Statement: “You are not being fair. The president said today that we are dealing with each situation individually and that serious consequences will befall all the defiant even if this is in a different manner.”
Notice, O’Reilly represents the president’s speech truly, but in a particular nuanced fashion that is expedient to the moment. O’Reilly chooses to focus on the fact that the president says the threat will be dealt with in different ways. There is no untruth in the O’Reilly comment although it, technically speaking, is not exactly what the president said and it is nuanced according to the intent of O’Reilly.
Reporter #2: Sean Hannity
Context: Arguing with Allen Colmes concerning the president’s involvement of other nations in what Colmes believes to be American maverick tendencies to arrogantly make threats without the backing of other nations.
Nuance: Hannity is disagreeing with Colmes and is an avid Bush supporter.
Statement: “You don’t even listen to the president himself. He said today that there is a coalition of forces that are going to bring swift destruction upon the enemy.”
Once again, we do not have a technically precise statement from the president, but it is true nonetheless. Hannity, in this case, like O’Reilly, only focuses in on the issues that are expedient to his cause and then nuances the statement to his own purpose. Yet his purpose, while more focused than the president’s, could not be said to have strayed from the president’s original intent. Notice particularly that Hannity changes “serious consequences” to “swift destruction.”
Some may say that you cannot turn the ambiguous “serious consequences” to a more definite “swift destruction.” In some cases this may be uncalled for, but (and listen to this carefully) what if Hannity had recently heard the president say in other contexts that all in this coalition were prepared to do whatever is necessary in a timely fashion? What if in other speeches he had heard the president say that all those who seek weapons of mass destruction will share the same fate as Iraq? You see, Hannity may know the president well enough to read into his statements the fuller intent. He is at liberty to do so as long as it is accurately representing the president’s intent, to which he has particular insights.
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, yet all-together accurate (inerrant), nuanced method of recounting the events. This liberty is part of inspiration, whether it be of the Gospels writers or any other author of Scripture. 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 all together and admit we hold to mechanical dictation (that God simply used the human authors hands in writing the Scripture, not their head—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 are writing since their motives do not influence the interpretation.
Some may accuse me of uncritically 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 this type of redaction criticism too far. Some have gone to the point of denying the truthfulness of the event based upon the expediency of the moment. But this is not what I am doing. 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 or structure. Therefore I do believe in a limited use of redaction criticism (although I would be careful who I said this around!). I would just not go so far as to say that the writers of Scripture ever produced fabrications, even if they did choose what to include due to the perceived needs of their audience.
One last thing: ipsissima verba vs. ipsissima vox
Scholars refer to these issues by referring to 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 hermeneutical method demands the latter. Only if we deductively 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 that I have demonstrated that this is not only all-together unnecessary and naive, but misleading and dangerous.
Now, having said all of this, it is important for me to allow the same fairness that I hope to receive from others. There are good scholars who disagree with me and are well able to defend their position. I encourage you to wrestle with their views as they have important representation within evangelicalism.
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
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]